BEIRUT (Reuters) - Saad al-Hariri is ready to return as prime minister of a new Lebanese government, a senior official familiar with his thinking said, on condition it includes technocrats and can quickly implement reforms to stave off economic collapse.
Hariri’s resignation on Tuesday left a political vacuum at a moment of acute crisis, with reforms urgently needed to ward off even deeper financial problems in one of the world’s most heavily indebted states.
After two weeks of anti-government protests largely subsided following Hariri’s announcement, main roads in Lebanon reopened on Wednesday as security forces sought to restore a semblance of normality.
Banks remained closed for an 11th working day but the Association of Lebanese Banks said they would resume normal operations and receive customers on Friday.
People took to the streets again late on Wednesday in some parts of Lebanon, including in Beirut and the northern Akkar region where the army clashed with protesters blocking a road.
Hariri resigned after massive protests against the political elite, accused by demonstrators of overseeing rampant state corruption, saying he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve the crisis. [nL8N27E489]
The senior official, who declined to be identified, said any new cabinet led by Hariri should not include a group of top-tier politicians who were in the outgoing coalition government, without naming them.
The cabinet comprised top representatives of most of Lebanon’s sectarian parties, among them foreign minister Gebran Bassil of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, a prominent target of protesters.
Bassil is a political ally of the powerful Iranian-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which had opposed the government’s resignation and has yet to comment on the departure of Hariri, a long-time opponent of the group.
The crisis has weighed on the country’s sovereign debt and increased pressure on the Lebanese pound, which has been weakening on the parallel market below the official rate of 1,507.5 to the U.S. dollar. Prices in the black market for dollars varied from 1,750 to 1,850 pounds on Wednesday.
The banks had publicly raised security fears as the reason for their closure. Bankers and analysts have also cited concern about a rush by savers to withdraw their savings or transfer them abroad once the banks reopen.
President Michel Aoun formally asked Hariri on Wednesday to continue in a caretaker role until a new cabinet is formed, as required by Lebanon’s system of government.
There is no obvious alternative to Hariri as prime minister, a post reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.
Hariri, Lebanon’s leading Sunni politician, is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab support for Lebanon, which is in dire need of external financial support to revive its economy and boost its foreign exchange reserves.
The education minister called on schools and universities to reopen on Thursday.
The army command said in a statement that people had a right to protest, but that applied “in public squares only”.
At night, soldiers fired tear gas to disperse protesters who blocked a road in Akkar and demonstrators closed a main route out of Tripoli city nearby, state news agency NNA said.
People also returned to block part of a main bridge in Beirut which had re-opened earlier on Wednesday. “We were sitting at home. But when we saw the scuffles in the north, we came to show solidarity,” said Farah, one of the protesters.
The main protest camp in a square in central Beirut was closed to traffic by security forces.
Hariri made his resignation speech on Tuesday after a crowd loyal to Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed the camp in central Beirut.
The strife was the most serious on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies at the time.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the formation of a new government responsive to the needs of the people. “The Lebanese people want an efficient and effective government, economic reform, and an end to endemic corruption,” he said.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of stoking unrest in Lebanon and urged protesters to seek changes in a lawful way. Iran is a major backer of Hezbollah. [nL8N27F5I4]
Aoun said recent events had “opened the door to significant reform,” but people would return to the streets if obstacles were placed in the way of the formation of a “clean government”.
Reporting by Issam Abdallah, Tom Perry, and Ellen Francis; Writing by Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Giles Elgood and Stephen Coates