Lebanon Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stepped down on Thursday after failing to form a government for over the past eight months.
Hariri resigned following a brief meeting with President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace.
“I withdrew from forming the government,” he told reporters. “Aoun demanded some amendments, which he considered essential, and said we will not be able to reach an understanding with each other… And may God save this country.”
Aoun accused Hariri of already deciding to step down prior to their meeting.
“Hariri rejected any amendments related to changes in ministries, their sectarian distribution, and the names associated with them,” the president’s office said in a statement.
In an interview with Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV, Hariri said he selected his candidates based on their expertise and their ability to reform the economy, but Aoun did not.
“I resigned in 2019 because I wanted a government of experts, and if we formed Michel Aoun’s government then the country won’t be saved,” he said.
“The main problem of this country is Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, who in turn protects him. This is the equation in the country and if someone can’t see it then they’re blind.”
Hariri’s office declined to comment to Al Jazeera.
Later on Thursday, supporters of Hariri and his Future Movement party took to the streets, blocking roads with burning tyres and rubbish bins in several areas around Beirut. Several dozen protesters at Beirut’s Sports City scuffled with Lebanese soldiers in riot gear who fired rubber-coated steel bullets.
Major highways south of the capital were also targetted by demonstrators. Roads in the northern city of Tripoli and in the southern city of Sour were also blocked.
Following Hariri’s step down, the Lebanese pound hit a new all-time low exceeding 21,000 to the US dollar.
The lira has now lost 90 percent of its value, effectively evaporating the savings of hundreds of thousands of families. At least half of the population has slipped into poverty, while food inflation is at more than 400 percent.
Political deadlock has persisted since Hariri’s reappointment last October, despite diplomatic pressure from France, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. The European Union has threatened to implement sanctions on Lebanese officials preventing a new government to take power.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the resignation was a “disappointing development” for the Lebanese people.
“Lebanon’s political class has squandered the last nine months,” Blinken said in a statement. “The Lebanese economy is in free-fall, and the current government is not providing basic services in a reliable fashion. Leaders in Beirut must urgently put aside partisan differences and form a government that serves the Lebanese people. That is what the people of Lebanon desperately need.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was also scathing.
“Lebanon is witnessing its self-destruction and the political class is to blame,” he said. “Lebanon’s rulers appear unable to find a solution to the crisis they created.”
Jamil Mouawad, senior fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative, said Hariri’s resignation is a prime example of sectarian politics at play in Lebanon.
“It’s been like this for years, except state institutions no longer have cosmetic coverup as they did prior to the economic crisis,” Mouawad told Al Jazeera, adding sectarian tensions will likely flare now. “In this next phase they will start blaming each other for obstructing the government formation.”
Hariri proposed on Wednesday a 24-minister government, which according to local media gave Aoun eight ministers, including the defence and foreign ministries.
Hariri has been at odds with Aoun over the size and distribution of a new government. Aoun has accused Hariri’s proposal of lacking Christian representation and dismissing the country’s sectarian-based power-sharing system, while Hariri has accused Aoun of wanting too large of a share in government.
After resigning in October 2019 following countrywide anti-government protests, Hariri was reappointed a year later, vowing to put together a government that would enact economic reforms.
Since late 2019, the Lebanese currency started to lose its value because of a shortage of dollars, officially pegged at 1,500 pounds to the US dollar. Banks imposed withdrawal limits on dollar accounts, until only permitting withdrawals at the slightly inflated rate of 3,900 pounds to the dollar.
The international community has urged Lebanese officials to settle political differences and put together a government that would enact economic reforms to unlock billions of dollars in aid and make the economy viable again.
Lebanon is run under a sect-based power-sharing system for its religious communities. Key political and security offices are allocated to different sects. The president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.