His designation came amid one of Lebanon’s most tumultuous periods: The spread of the novel coronavirus and government-enforced lockdowns exacerbated a titanic economic struggle — but both crises briefly paled in comparison to a massive blast that tore through the capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4, killing nearly 200 people and damaging much of the city.
In a brief speech, Hariri addressed Lebanese “who are suffering difficulties to the point of desperation,” and he emphasized the need to rebuild Beirut after the blast and follow a French initiative to appoint a cabinet of specialists to address the country’s crises.
As lawmakers announced their choices Thursday, many emphasized the unprecedented times that Lebanon is going through. The memory of the blast, which shook the country both literally and figuratively, is present in everyday life: Shattered glass still litters many alleyways. Bent steel and concrete husks stand where buildings used to be. Residents jump at loud noises and the roar of planes.
The destruction across much of the city is also a constant reminder that the country is scrounging for funds to pay for reconstruction.
Hassan Diab, who was designated prime minister in January after Hariri’s resignation in October 2019, resigned a week after the explosion amid a public uproar over official negligence that left 2,750 tons of volatile ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port for six years, despite repeated warnings about safety concerns. Diab’s 10-month tenure (he served as caretaker prime minister after his resignation) also coincided with a severe devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which hit 10,000 pounds to the dollar in July — despite a decades-long peg of 1,500 to the dollar.
Lebanon has entered a period of hyperinflation, which stood at 401 percent last month according to estimates by Steve Hanke, an applied economics professor at Johns Hopkins University. Prices of staple goods have shot up: Bread, fruits and vegetables doubled in cost last month in comparison with last year. The prices of meat and poultry have more than doubled, according to Lebanon’s Consultation and Research Institute.
Talks with the International Monetary Fund to reach a bailout stalled after months of resignations by Lebanese negotiators, who expressed frustration with the ruling elite and a lack of transparency. Before the Beirut blast, the main worry was that the central bank’s dollar deposits would run out and staples such as wheat and fuel would no longer be subsidized.
Hariri’s reinstatement is fueled by hopes from Lebanon’s political elite, who expect that his designation will help reach an IMF bailout and funnel foreign aid to Lebanon’s collapsed economy.
Hariri is the son of Rafiq al-Hariri, who served as prime minister twice before his assassination in 2005.
This will be the younger Hariri’s third stretch as prime minister: His first ended in 2011 when his government was toppled by Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a militant group and political party whose ministers and allies in the cabinet resigned. In 2017, during his second term, he abruptly announced his resignation while in Saudi Arabia, allegedly under pressure from the Saudi authorities. He later recanted.
Hariri’s second term ended with his resignation on Oct. 29, 2019, after 10 days of protests that filled the streets, blocked roads and paralyzed the country. “I have reached a dead end, and we need a big shock to counter this crisis,” he said then.
The protests began after a tax on Internet phone calls and an increase in the value-added tax were proposed, but they swelled after a minister’s bodyguards got into physical altercations with protesters and fired guns into the air to disperse the crowd. Thousands took to the streets that night to protest the dire economic situation, the lack of services, governmental ineptitude and rampant corruption.
On Wednesday, crowds protested Hariri’s expected designation, which prompted his supporters to stage a march of their own and burn down a 36-foot-tall fist labeled “Revolution,” which had become a symbol for the protesters.
Nader Durgham in Beirut contributed to this report.