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After cabinet fiasco, where to now for Lebanon?

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Beirut (AFP)

With Lebanon already mired in multiple crises, where does the failure to form a government despite intense international pressure leave the country?

Lebanon is grappling with its worst economic crunch in decades, and still reeling from a colossal blast at the capital's port on August 4 that killed more than 190 people, injured thousands, and ravaged large parts of Beirut.

France earlier this month extracted a promise from political forces that they would help prime minister-designate Mustapha Adib draw up a cabinet within a fortnight, but on Saturday he threw in the towel.

Is there a new deadline?

French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday gave Lebanese leaders another "four to six weeks" to form a crisis government of independents as a prerequisite to much-needed financial aid.

"It now is up to Lebanese leaders to seize this last chance," he said.

President Michel Aoun, who on Monday said he still stood by the French initiative, must now consult parliamentary blocs on the choice of a new premier-designate, before that candidate can even start trying to form a cabinet.

This is often a drawn-out process in Lebanon, where a complex power-sharing system seeks to maintain a fragile balance between its various political and religious sides.

In practice, main political forces usually agree on a new prime minister even before the president names him. And similarly, they back a cabinet line-up even before the premier-designate announces it.

"This will take quite a bit of time," said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

This was bad news for a debt-ridden country desperately in need of restarting stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund towards saving its crumbling economy.

"Meanwhile we're left with a caretaker government that really cannot take any decisions... and certainly cannot negotiate with the IMF on an economic recovery plan," she said.

What of Hezbollah?

Adib's efforts were largely hampered by the country's two Shiite movements, Hezbollah and Amal, demanding the finance portfolio and insisting on naming Shiite ministers themselves.

Macron on Sunday said Hezbollah, Tehran's proxy in Lebanon, should "not think it is more powerful than it is".

"It must show that it respects all the Lebanese -- and in recent days, it has clearly shown the opposite," he said.

Iran on Monday said it was in touch with France, and supported French efforts towards helping Lebanon if they were well-intentioned.

"We are in touch with different Lebanese groups directly and continuously, and we hope that we can help resolve this issue," a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is set to speak on Tuesday.

Does this mean no humanitarian aid?

By the end of October, whether or not there is a government, France will however hold a new aid conference with the United Nations.

The humanitarian assistance will be funnelled "directly to the population solely through non-governmental organisations on the ground and the United Nations", Macron said.

During a first French-UN video conference on August 9, just days after the Beirut blast, the international community already pledged around $300 million in emergency aid.

But a political meeting with Lebanese leaders, originally also scheduled for October, has been scrapped.

Instead Macron said he would gather members of the international community within the next 20 days to re-examine a roadmap for the country, and lay out their conditions for support to Lebanon.

They would also "urge that the results of the probe on the causes of the August 4 explosion be finally established and made public, and that those responsible be named," he said.

Lebanon has refused an international investigation into the explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate on the dockside.

But it has launched its own probe aided by international experts, arresting 25 people, including top customs and port officials.

Macron, who has twice visited the former French protectorate since the August 4 explosion, earlier this month said he would return to Lebanon in December. But it was not immediately clear if that was still planned.

Is Lebanon hell-bound?

Last week, President Michel Aoun warned Lebanon was headed to "hell" if no new cabinet was rapidly hammered out.

Prices have soared in recent months, and poverty has risen to more than half the population.

Analyst Karim Bitar said Lebanon likely had a rough ride ahead.

"Even if Lebanon is not hell-bound, we will probably witness... the weakening of public institutions, a worsening of the economic crisis... and a wave of emigration," he said.

"Lebanon could empty itself of... its middle class, to end up with an oligarchy clinging on to power and the impoverishment of those who stay behind."

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