- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 26, 2019

BEIRUT (AP) - Outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday withdrew his candidacy for the premiership, saying he hoped to clear the way for a solution to the political impasse amid weeks of anti-government protests.

Hariri resigned nearly a month ago in response to mass protests ignited by a severe financial crisis. His resignation met a key demand of the protesters but plunged the country into uncertainty, with no clear path to resolving its economic and political problems.

Politicians have failed to agree on the shape and form of a new government. Hariri had insisted on heading a government of technocrats, while his opponents, including the militant group Hezbollah, want a Cabinet made up of both experts and politicians.

The frustrated protesters have resorted to road closures and other tactics in an effort to pressure politicians into responding to their demands for a new government.

Supporters of the main two Shiite groups, the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, have attacked protesters on several occasions, including on Sunday night, sparking hours-long clashes.

It was among the worst violence since nationwide protests erupted Oct. 17 targeting the country’s entire political class, of which Hezbollah and Berri are a part.

In a statement issued by his office, Hariri called on President Michel Aoun to quickly hold consultations with the heads of parliamentary blocs to name a new prime minister. He insisted that a new government made up of experts is needed to get Lebanon out of its crisis and “respond to the aspirations of the young men and women” who have been protesting in the streets.

He also indirectly criticized Aoun for holding him responsible for the delay in government formation.

The Western-backed Hariri had served in a national unity government dominated by rival factions allied with Hezbollah.

Under the power-sharing system established after the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon’s president is a Christian, its prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and its parliament speaker is a Shiite.

There is no clear alternative to Hariri, who is a leading Sunni politician, and it was not immediately clear whether he would back another candidate.

Under the constitution, Aoun must hold binding consultations with the heads of parliamentary blocs to ask them for their choice of a new prime minister. He has held back on calling for such consultations so far, pending an agreement among factions on a prime minister.

There was no immediate response to Hariri’s statement by Aoun or Hezbollah. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said he wants Hariri to stay on as prime minister.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International called on authorities to do more to protect protesters, warning that the attacks of the past two days “could well signal a dangerous escalation.”

“The images of the men carrying flags of two of the political parties in government, Hezbollah and Amal, armed with steel batons, knives and stones, chasing and beating protesters in alleyways, setting alight tents and destroying private property in the past two days are extremely worrying and warrant the authorities’ firm and immediate action,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s Middle East Research Director.

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