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Businessman Najib Mikati becomes Lebanon’s latest prime minister designate

Lebanese prime minister designate Najib Mikati at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on July 26, 2021. (Bilal Hussein/AP)

BEIRUT — Billionaire former prime minister Najib Mikati secured enough votes on Monday to become Lebanon's next prime minister designate, tasked with forming a government that many hope will halt the country's precipitous slide into economic and financial collapse.

Mikati is the third nominee for the post since the explosion at Beirut’s port nearly a year ago forced the resignation of Hassan Diab, who has stayed on as caretaker prime minister while the country’s factions squabble over who should replace him.

Whether Mikati will succeed where the others failed to form a new government is uncertain. He won the backing of 72 of the 118 members of parliament, including lawmakers from the powerful Hezbollah movement, but the two major Christian factions declined to offer their support.

Under Lebanon’s sect-based power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Seats in the cabinet are likewise distributed along sectarian lines, necessitating arduous negotiations to secure a formula that satisfies all the groups.

Veteran politician Saad Hariri, who was nominated last year, stepped aside earlier this month after nine months of failed efforts to find a consensus. ­Mustapha Adib, the other nominee, resigned in September.

In the meantime, the country’s collapse has accelerated. The currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value, impoverishing millions. Food and medicines are scarce. Lebanon has almost completely run out of fuel, paralyzing transport and leaving even those wealthy enough to afford generators without electricity.

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In a televised speech, which many Lebanese could not watch because of the lack of electricity, Mikati promised to seek international support for Lebanon’s recovery should he succeed in forming a government.

However, he added, “I have no magic wand.”

Mikati was prime minister from June 2011 until February 2014, when the spillover of neighboring Syria’s civil war caused strife between those supporting and opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Before that, Mikati briefly served as caretaker premier in 2005, overseeing Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections after the Syrian Army’s withdrawal from the country.

Lebanese widely blame the corruption of their ruling elites for their country’s plight, and Mikati is among those who have been held responsible. At protests in his hometown of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, he has frequently been the target of wrath for purportedly failing to use his wealth to aid the impoverished city.

The billionaire, whose net worth sits at $2.7 billion, according to Forbes, was accused by a state prosecutor in 2019 of illicit enrichment alongside his brother Taha from state-subsidized housing loans. Mikati denies the allegation.

Reflecting hope that a new government may finally be in sight, the Lebanese pound jumped in value to around 17,000 to the dollar, compared with 20,000 in the preceding days. Before the crisis began in 2019, the pound traded at 1,500 to the dollar.

Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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