Lebanon’s new Cabinet holds its first meeting amid protests

Lebanon's new Cabinet holds its first meeting amid protests

BEIRUT (AP) – Lebanon’s new government held its first meeting on Wednesday, a day after it was formed following a three-month-long political vacuum. But even as the government convened, protesters briefly closed off major roads in and around Beirut, denouncing it as a rubber stamp for the same political parties they blame for widespread corruption.

The new Cabinet, which has the support of the powerful militant Hezbollah group and its allies, has a monumental task ahead – including getting Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 civil war. The crisis worsened since mass protests against the political elite started in mid-October, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government two weeks later.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab and the ministers held the first meeting at the presidential palace in Beirut; President Michel Aoun attended the session. The 20-member Cabinet is made up mostly of specialists and includes six women – a record number for Lebanon – holding key ministries, including those of defense, justice and labor.

Analysts say the new government, being politically aligned with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, would likely have difficulty drumming up international and regional support needed to avoid economic collapse.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and oil-rich gulf countries whose support is badly needed for debt-ridden Lebanon. The European Union considers the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the formation of a new government, saying “he looks forward to working with” Diab and his Cabinet, “including in support of Lebanon’s reform agenda and to address the pressing needs of its people.”

Also Wednesday, the U.S. dollar was being bought at exchange shops around the country for 2,000 Lebanese pounds, after hitting a record of 2,500 pounds to the dollar last week. The official rate remained at 1,507 pounds to the dollar. Panic and anger have gripped the public as the pound, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted in value. It fell more than 60% in recent weeks on the black market.

The economy has seen no growth and flows of foreign currency dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most basic goods.

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