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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Lebanon's president warns of crisis on eve of stepping down

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BEIRUT: Outgoing Lebanese President Michel Aoun told Reuters on Saturday his nation could be sliding into "constitutional chaos", with no one in line to succeed him and a cabinet that is operating in a caretaker capacity.


Aoun is set to leave the presidential palace on Sunday, a day before his six-year term ends, but four sessions in the nation's fractured parliament have failed to reach consensus on a candidate to succeed him.


While Lebanon has faced prolonged presidential vacuums in the past, the country now finds itself on the verge of an unprecedented situation with both a vacant presidency and a caretaker cabinet with limited powers.


Aoun said an 11th-hour political move to address the constitutional crisis might be possible, but said "there is no final decision" on what that could involve.


Aoun's presidency is inextricably linked in the minds of many Lebanese to their country's worst days since the 1975-1990 civil war, with the financial crisis that began in 2019 and the deadly Beirut port blast of 2020.


His son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who was put on a sanctions list by the United States in 2020 for alleged corruption, has presidential ambitions.


Bassil has denied the allegations, and Aoun said on Saturday the sanctions would not stop Bassil from eventually being a presidential candidate.


"Once he's elected (as president), the sanctions will go away," Aoun said, without elaborating.


In his final week as president, Aoun signed a US-brokered deal delineating Lebanon's southern maritime border with Israel - a modest diplomatic breakthrough that would allow both countries to extract natural gas from maritime deposits.


He said Hezbollah group, which sent unarmed drones over Israel and threatened to attack its offshore rigs multiple times, had served as a "deterrent" that had helped keep the negotiations going in Lebanon's favour.


"It wasn't coordinated (with the government). It was an initiative taken by Hezbollah and it was useful," Aoun said.


He said the deal paved the way for gas discoveries that could be Lebanon's "last chance" at recovering from a three-year financial meltdown that has cost the currency 95% of its value and pushed 80% of the population into poverty. -- Reuters


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