Lebanon postpones picking PM as violence worsens

Peaceful protests descend into violence as bitterly divided political parties fail to agree on new PM.

BEIRUT - Lebanon's president on Monday postponed consultations to select a new prime minister after weeks of largely peaceful street protests descended into violence, leaving dozens wounded in clashes with security forces.

The government stepped down on October 29 in the face of unprecedented nationwide demonstrations demanding the complete overhaul of a political class deemed inept and corrupt.

On Monday the presidency announced that President Michel Aoun had "responded to the wishes of (outgoing) prime minister Saad Hariri to postpone parliamentary consultations until Thursday December 19".

It is not the first time the talks have been delayed. Parliamentary consultations had been scheduled for December 9 before being pushed back a week.

The names of various potential candidates to replace Hariri have been circulated in recent weeks but bitterly divided political parties have failed to agree on a new premier.

Cabinet formation can drag on for months in the multi-confessional country, with Hariri taking almost nine months to reach an agreement with all political sides for the last one.

According to a complex political system that seeks to maintain a fragile balance between religious communities, Lebanon's prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim.

Earlier this month the Sunni Muslim establishment threw its support behind Hariri returning, further angering protesters who have demanded a cabinet of independent experts.

The powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, a key political player with ministers in the outgoing government, has repeatedly dismissed the idea of an exclusively technocratic cabinet.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday he would support a "government of national partnership", and one with "the widest possible representation" that did not exclude any of the major parties.

He said it could be headed by Hariri or someone designated by the outgoing premier.

Hariri has said he would only return as premier if it was to head a government of technocrats.

The name of a new prime minister is frequently picked before symbolic parliamentary consultations, but Nasrallah said that "parliamentary blocs have not agreed on a name".

"The formation will be no easy feat," he said.

'Widespread chaos' 

The latest delay to the consultations on a new premier came the day after clashes near the parliament building in the capital Beirut between protesters and security forces.

Rallies had begun peacefully with protesters waving Lebanese flags and chanting "Hariri will not return", but escalated later, with demonstrators throwing water bottles and firecrackers at the security forces who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

The Lebanese Red Cross said it treated 45 people on site.

"Twenty-eight people were transported to hospital," the organisation's director George Kettane said.

In a statement on Monday, the Lebanese army condemned the "widespread chaos" the night before, reporting "vandalism and destruction of private and public property".

Saturday evening had seen dozens of people hurt when security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators who tried to breach metal barricades near the legislature.

Interior Minister Raya El-Hassan on Saturday ordered security forces to open a "rapid and transparent" inquiry into what was the most violent episode since the anti-government protests began.

The rallies that were sparked by the announcement of a new tax have been largely peaceful, but clashes have increased in recent weeks.

Economic warnings 

The consultation delay comes despite the need for a government to address deepening economic troubles including a dollar liquidity crisis.

The international community has urged a new cabinet to be formed swiftly to implement key economic reforms and unlock international aid as Lebanon's debt-burdened economy slides towards collapse.

Public debt has reached more than $86 billion, over 150 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to the finance ministry.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday urged Lebanese leaders to push to resolve the crisis paralysing the country, warning of a "dramatic situation".

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri -- a hate-figure for many protesters -- warned on Monday of the risk of a "famine" if the crisis endures, in an interview with the newspaper Al-Akhbar.

The World Bank has warned of an impending recession that may see the proportion of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.