Lebanon minister quits and warns of ‘failed state’ risk

Lebanon’s foreign minister warned the country is “slipping into becoming a failed state” as he quit on Monday, striking a fresh blow to a government that is failing to make headway on reforms needed to unlock international financing.

Nassif Hitti is the first minister to leave Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet, which is facing Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its civil war. He was appointed to the new cabinet in January after the previous administration was toppled by a mass protest movement.

The veteran diplomat said in a statement that Lebanon “is slipping into becoming a failed state,” adding that if “contradictory masters and interests” failed to “convene on the interest of the Lebanese people . . . the boat will sink with everyone [in it]”.

Mr Hitti said that he was stepping down because there was an absence of “will” to enact comprehensive reforms called for by the Lebanese and international community.

The new government has struggled to address the country’s overlapping economic, monetary and financial crises. Lebanon has been governed on the basis of sectarian power-sharing since 15 years of civil strife ended in 1990, helping to maintain intercommunal peace but cementing the position of warlords and political dynasties.

Since the October protests exacerbated the slow-burning economic crisis, the local currency has lost about 80 per cent of its value compared with the official rate pegged to the dollar, stoking runaway inflation in the import-dependent nation. And this year, coronavirus lockdowns have heaped pressure on already struggling businesses and wiped out thousands more jobs, while rolling electrical blackouts have added to a mounting sense of chaos.

Although the cash-strapped government badly needs help to fill gaping fiscal and trade deficits, bailout talks with the IMF have been stymied by internal Lebanese bickering over the scale of losses, and compounded by the government’s failure to pass a capital controls law or start to overhaul the lossmaking electricity sector.

Mr Hitti’s resignation comes shortly after a diplomatic gaffe by Mr Diab, who criticised the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian after he visited Beirut last month in the first high-level diplomatic mission to Lebanon since the pandemic shut much of Europe and the Middle East in March.

Mr Le Drian said the Lebanese government had to make progress on reforms before it would receive international aid, according to diplomats familiar with his meetings with Lebanese officials, including his counterpart Mr Hitti. France, the former colonial ruler, has deep ties with Lebanon and has pledged funds for struggling francophone schools.

But Mr Diab appeared to object to the French message of “help us help you”, posting and later deleting a tweet that accused Mr Le Drian of having “incomplete information” about Lebanon’s reforms, and complaining about the lack of international help for the country.

Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar in Istanbul.