San Francisco Chronicle

New prime minister vows to lift shattered economy

- By Zeina Karam and Sarah El Deeb Zeina Karam and Sarah El Deeb are Associated Press writers.

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s new Prime Minister Najib Mikati pledged Friday to gain control of one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns, saying lifting subsidies would be critical for the small country’s government formed after a year of political stalemate.

Holding back tears, Mikati, a billionair­e business tycoon, said he recognized the pain of Lebanese mothers who cannot feed their children or find aspirin to ease their ailments, as well as to students whose parents can no longer afford to send them to school.

“The situation is difficult but not impossible to deal with if we cooperate,” Mikati said at the presidenti­al palace, where the new government lineup was announced.

Lebanon has been without a fully empowered government since the catastroph­ic Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at Beirut’s port, which forced the resignatio­n of then Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government. An economic collapse unfolding since 2019 has been made worse by the deadlock among rival political groups— who bickered over distributi­on of power and roles in the new government.

The new government faces a mammoth challenge that few believe can be surmounted, including undertakin­g critically needed reforms. Among its first tasks will be managing public anger and tensions resulting from the lifting of fuel subsidies expected by the end of the month.

Lebanon’s foreign reserves have been running dangerousl­y low, and the central bank in the import-dependent country said it is no longer able to support the country’s $6 billion subsidy program.

The government is also expected to oversee a financial audit of the Central Bank, and resume negotiatio­ns with the Internatio­nal Monetary Fund for a rescue package.

Many members of the new Cabinet are experts in their fields, including Firas Abiad, director general of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronaviru­s fight. Abiad, who has won praise for his transparen­cy in handling the pandemic, was named health minister. A top Central Bank official, Youssef Khalil, was appointed as finance minister, and Bassam Mawlawi, a judge, is the new interior minister.

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