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The Lebanese president leaves without a replacement, the crisis worsens

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BEIRUT — President Michel Aoun left Lebanon’s presidential palace on Sunday, marking the end of his six-year term without a replacement, leaving the small nation in a political vacuum that risks deepening its historic economic collapse.

As Aoun’s term ends, the country is led by a caretaker government after Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati failed to form a new cabinet following legislative elections on May 15. Aoun and his supporters warn that such a government does not have full powers to run the country, saying weeks of “constitutional chaos” lie ahead.

In a speech outside the palace, Aoun told thousands of supporters that he had accepted the resignation of Mikati’s government. This decision risks further delegitimizing the interim administration and aggravating existing political tensions in the country.

Mikati responded soon after with a statement from his office saying his government would continue to perform its duties in accordance with the constitution.

Many fear a protracted power vacuum could further delay attempts to finalize a deal with the International Monetary Fund that would provide Lebanon with some $3 billion in aid, widely seen as a key step to help the country emerge. of a three-year financial crisis. which left three quarters of the population in poverty.

Although it will not be the first time that the Lebanese parliament has failed to name a successor at the end of the president’s term, it will be the first time that there will be no president and an interim cabinet in power. limits.

Lebanon’s constitution allows the cabinet under regular circumstances to lead the government, but it is unclear whether this applies to an interim government.

Wissam Lahham, a professor of constitutional law at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, told The Associated Press that in his view the governance issues the country will face are political rather than legal.

Although the constitution “does not explicitly say that the interim government can act if there is no president, logically, constitutionally, one must accept this because… the state and the institutions must continue to function according to the principle of the continuity of public services,” he said.

Lebanese are deeply divided over Aoun, an 87-year-old Maronite Christian and former army commander, with some seeing him as a defender of the country’s Christian community and a figurehead who has tried to seriously tackle corruption in Lebanon . His opponents criticize him for his role in the 1975-1990 civil war and for his shifting alliances, particularly with Iran-backed Hezbollah, the country’s most powerful military and political force. He has also been criticized for grooming his son-in-law to replace him, and many blame him for the economic crisis rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Aoun, Lebanon’s 13th president since the country’s independence from France in 1943, has seen Beirut’s historic relations with oil-rich Gulf countries deteriorate due to the powers of Hezbollah and the Islamic State. one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in the world in the port of Beirut in August 2020 which killed more than 200 people. .

Aoun blasted his political opponents and said they had blocked him from bringing to justice central bank governor Riad Salameh, who is under investigation in several European countries, including Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein for allegations of money laundering and embezzlement.

“I am leaving a country that is robbed,” Aoun said, adding that all Lebanese have been hurt by losing their savings in local banks. He added that some politicians have blocked the investigation into the port explosion.

Aoun, who blamed his political rivals and others for the crisis except members of his political party, then left the palace and headed to his residence in Beirut’s northern suburb of Rabieh.

Aoun’s biggest achievement came last week. It has signed a maritime border agreement with Israel, mediated by the United States, which Beirut hopes will lead to gas exploration in the Mediterranean. This will likely help Lebanon emerge from its economic crisis which has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst the world has seen since the 1850s.

Parliament has held four sessions since the end of September to elect a president, but no candidate has been able to obtain the required two-thirds majority of votes. As in previous votes, the parliamentary blocs will have to agree on a consensus candidate for the nation’s top job, as no alliance in the legislature controls the majority seats.

Aoun himself was elected in 2016 after more than two years in a vacuum. Despite Hezbollah’s backing at the time, Aoun was only elected after receiving backing from the bloc of his main rivals the Lebanese Christian Forces Party as well as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s bloc.

According to the power-sharing agreement in Lebanon, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament a Shiite and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Cabinet and government seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Christians, Sunnis and Shiites each represent about a third of Lebanon’s 5 million inhabitants.

Since the economic collapse began with nationwide protests in October 2019, the Lebanese political class – which has ruled since the end of the civil war – has resisted reforms demanded by the international community that could help secure billions of dollars in loans and investments.

Talks between the Lebanese government and the IMF, which began in May 2020 and culminated in a services-level agreement in April, have made very little progress.

The Lebanese government has implemented some of the IMF requirements of the agreement, which are mandatory before finalizing a rescue package. Among them are the restructuring of the ailing Lebanese financial sector, the implementation of tax reforms, the restructuring of external public debt and the establishment of strong anti-corruption and anti-money laundering measures.

“The prospects for an agreement with the IMF were already dim before the next power vacuum and the departure of Aoun,” said Nasser Saidi, an economist and former economy minister. “There is no political will or appetite to undertake reforms.”

“Aoun’s departure is just another nail in the coffin,” he said. “It doesn’t change the fundamentals of a dysfunctional failed state and utterly ineffective politics.”