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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 October, 2004, 21:28 GMT 22:28 UK
Hariri: A hard act to follow

By Kim Ghattas
BBC correspondent in Beirut

The resignation of their billionaire Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, has left the Lebanese worried about the future of their country as it becomes entrenched in a stand-off with the UN.

Rafiq Hariri (l) arrives at the presidential palace on Wednesday
Hariri's (l) departure has shocked many
Faced with growing international pressure and grappling with a debt of $32bn, Lebanon needs all the support it can get but it now looks like it will not be able to count on Mr Hariri's extensive network of political and business contacts, from international creditors to the Saudi royal family and French President Jacques Chirac.

The political crisis started in September when Lebanon, under Syrian pressure, looked set to extend by three years the mandate of the current President, Emile Lahoud, a protege of Damascus.

The UN adopted a resolution calling on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon's affairs and withdraw some 15,000 troops from the country.

But the Lebanese parliament went ahead and voted in favour of keeping the president in power.

Governments of the two countries repeatedly rejected the UN call as interference in their internal affairs.

But the showdown between the pro-Syrian backers of the president and opponents of Syria's influence in Lebanon has paralysed the government for weeks.

Four ministers quit in September in protest against the extension of the president's mandate, which required a constitutional amendment.

On Tuesday, the UN Security Council again, in a statement, demanded that Syria quit Lebanon.

Instead, now it is Mr Hariri who has quit his job.

Old rivals

A new government was expected but Mr Hariri's announcement that he would not be heading the new cabinet came as a surprise.

Earlier this year, the billionaire prime minister said he would "rather cut his hand" than work again with his long time rival, Mr Lahoud.

Rumours about his resignation arose then.

The United States wants to see a Lebanese government truly representative of the will of the Lebanese people
Jeffery Feltman
US ambassador
But after Syria put pressure on him and reportedly promised him he would be given some room to manoeuvre in the formation of the new cabinet, Mr Hariri eventually endorsed the president's mandate extension.

It is unclear what went wrong but Mr Hariri said he had tried to form a government of national unity to weather the coming storm but was unable to come to an agreement with Mr Lahoud.

The president, who asked the cabinet to stay on as a caretaker government, will now hold consultations with the parliament on Thursday to nominate a new prime minister.

The 29 legislators who voted against keeping the president in power are expected to boycott the consultations, which means that the president will have a relatively free hand and his choice will set the government squarely in the pro-Syrian camp and possibly on a collision course with the US and the UN.

Members of the growing opposition are now warning that the controversial move to keep the president in power beyond his term has set in motion a series of dangerous events.

Walid Jumblatt, a Druze leader and leading member of the opposition said that his parliamentary bloc would "refrain from taking part in the staged parliamentary consultations" and warned that "the decision to extend Mr Lahoud's term is a matter that will throw the country into a cycle of violence".

The French and American ambassadors to Lebanon have now called on Lebanon to make the right choice when it comes to picking the next government.

"The United States and international partners want to see a Lebanese government that can address the needs of Lebanon and a government that is truly representative of the will of the Lebanese people," said the US Ambassador in Beirut, Jeffery Feltman, after he visited Mr Hariri at his home.

"We hope that the current government consultations will result in the type of credible, democratic and visionary Lebanese government that can move this country forward," he added.

Driving force

Taking the country forward also means dealing with Lebanon's heap of economic problems.

The resignation of Mr Hariri, who has headed five governments during a total of 12 years, has cast a cloud on the economic future of the country.

He has been the driving force behind the reconstruction of Lebanon after years of war, putting the country squarely back on the map, by rebuilding the Beirut central district and giving the country a state-of-the-art airport, as well as a modern road infrastructure.

Although his record is a mixed bag - his economic policies are blamed for the huge debt - his presence still attracts investors and reassures creditors.

But opponents of Mr Hariri say he is not irreplaceable and there are other competent men able to lead the country.

The Lebanese are now waiting to see whether the man who takes Mr Hariri's place will be up to this unenviable task.

Lebanese PM and cabinet resign
20 Oct 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Lebanon
20 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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