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Lebanon appoints president's diplomatic advisor as new foreign minister

Lebanon’s new Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe (Photo by National News Agency)

Lebanon has appointed the diplomatic advisor of President Michel Aoun as the country’s new foreign minister, hours after Nassif Hitti surprisingly stepped down from the position in protest at the government's mishandling of a spiraling economic crisis.

Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab met at Baabda Palace near the capital Beirut on Monday afternoon, and signed decrees accepting the resignation of Hitti and appointing Charbel Wehbe to replace him, local Arabic-language MTV Lebanon television network reported.

Wehbe is Aoun's diplomatic advisor and former ambassador to France.

Hitti submitted his resignation to Diab earlier in the day, arguing the government showed a lack of reformist will.

“Given the absence of an effective will to achieve structural, comprehensive reform which our society and the international community have urged us to do, I have decided to resign,” Hitti said in his resignation statement.

The government, which defaulted on its sovereign debt, entered talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in May. But the negotiations have stalled in the absence of tough reforms dictated by the IMF. Foreign donors have also declined to assist the country.

“I took part in this government to work for one boss called Lebanon, then I found in my country multiple bosses and contradicting interests,” Hitti said, adding that “if they do not come together in the interest of rescuing the Lebanese people, God forbid, the ship will sink with everyone on it.”

Hitti was appointed as foreign minister as part of Diab’s government in January.

Reports in local media have indicated that the resignation of the 67-year-old veteran diplomat was partially due to frustration over continued hold of Gebran Bassil, the former foreign minister and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), on key decisions at the ministry.

An unnamed FPM source, however, said Hitti’s decision to step down was his own.

The resignation was also attributed to differences with Diab. Hitti was reportedly sidelined from a meeting between French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Diab and several cabinet ministers, and was displeased with the manner in which the premier handled the official visit last month.

Diab appeared to criticize France’s top diplomat for tying any aid to the reforms demanded by the IMF.

Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. The Lebanese pound has continued to plummet against the US dollar, losing more than 80 percent of its value over the last weeks while sources of foreign currency have dried up.

The economic situation is fueling inflation, which the Finance Ministry has estimated will reach 27 percent later this year.

Back in April, Diab assured Lebanese citizens that at least 98 percent of bank deposits will not be affected by any financial measures that his government plans to take.

Some economists have, however, cast doubts on such promises, terming them as “out of touch with reality.”

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