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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Lebanon Gets New Prime Minister Amid Economic Meltdown


BEIRUT, LEBANON  — Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, was sworn in as Lebanon’s prime minister on Friday, taking over in a country that has been without a government for more than a year, plunging its people deeper into an economic abyss.

On his official Twitter feed, President Michel Aoun announced the formation of Mr. Mikati’s cabinet, saying that he and Mr. Mikati signed to make it official in the presence of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Mr. Mikati and his cabinet will face enormous challenges.

Lebanon, a small, volatile Mediterranean country, is experiencing an economic collapse that the World Bank says could be among the three worst in the world since the mid-1800s. Since the fall of 2019, the national currency has lost more than 90% of its value against the dollar, causing unemployment to spread, businesses to close, and prices to skyrocket.

In recent months, severe fuel shortages have left all but the wealthiest Lebanese grappling with widespread power outages and long lines at gas stations. The country’s once-vibrant banking, medical, and education sectors have all suffered significant losses as professionals have fled for better-paying jobs abroad due to collapsing salaries.

Since August of last year, when Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned following a massive explosion in the Beirut port that caused extensive damage to the Lebanese capital and killed more than 200 people, the country has been without a fully empowered government.

Two other designates gave up after failing to form governments in Lebanon’s complex system of sectarian power-sharing, and it took Mr. Mikati more than six weeks to succeed, despite more than a dozen meetings with Mr. Aoun.

Lebanon has sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the United States, France, and other countries, but most promises of assistance have been conditional on the formation of a government and the implementation of measures aimed at increasing transparency in a country where systematic corruption is endemic.

It was unclear what immediate steps Mr. Mikati would take to address a crisis whose causes had been building for years, but he has stated that he would work to implement a framework presented by France and engage with the International Monetary Fund.

For decades, Mr. Mikati, 65, has been a well-known figure in Lebanese business and politics. According to Forbes, his net worth is $2.8 billion, thanks to a company he co-founded with his brother that has international investments in telecommunications, real estate, and other sectors.

He is a Sunni Muslim from Tripoli in northern Lebanon, and he has previously served as Prime Minister twice, most recently from June 2011 to May 2013. He has also served in the cabinet and is a member of Lebanon’s parliament.

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