Lebanese prime minister-designate Hassan Diab said Friday he wants to form a government of independent technocrats that can tackle the spiraling economic crisis as protests against his nomination spread.
Speaking as visiting US envoy David Hale called for reforms, the Hezbollah-backed premier vowed to form an inclusive cabinet that would secure much-needed foreign aid.
Diab, a little-known 60-year-old engineering professor, was designated on Thursday with the endorsement of Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies but without the backing of Lebanon's main Sunni bloc.
The nomination of the independent former education minister and self-professed "technocrat" ended nearly two months of wrangling among lawmakers.
But it fuelled anger among Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, who said the prime minister-designate did not enjoy the community's backing for a post reserved for a Sunni by a power-sharing system in force since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
The Sunni community's objections to Diab's nomination fly in the face of the non-sectarian ethos of the two-month-old protest movement, which has demanded an end to the communal power-sharing system it blames for entrenching cronyism and incompetence.
For a second straight day, security forces in the capital scuffled with crowds of young men -- mainly supporters of former prime minister Saad Hariri -- trying to block roads in a Sunni district to condemn Diab's designation.
In the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, schools were closed and Diab opponents blocked roads, calling for a general strike, an AFP correspondent reported.
The unrest prompted Hariri to call on his supporters to refrain from taking to the streets, in the second such appeal in two days.
- Technocrat government -
Diab on Friday met Hariri and other Sunni political figures who did not endorse his nomination the previous day.
Following the meeting with Hariri, Diab said he wants to form "a government of independent technocrats" -- a key demand of protesters.
"Hariri is giving his full support to the formation of this government," said Diab, who is also a vice president at Lebanon's prestigious American University of Beirut.
Hariri had been tipped in recent days to return to his job, seven weeks after an unprecedented wave of protests condemning corruption and sectarianism forced him out.
But the 49-year-old two-time premier bowed out on Wednesday, claiming that his political rivals were opposed to a technocrat-dominated government that he planned to form.
On Thursday, his party stopped short of throwing its weight behind Diab, raising fears that a government lacking the support of all of Lebanon's factions could struggle to secure desperately needed foreign support to rescue an economy teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
But in an interview with Deutsche Welle aired on Friday, Diab said that he expected "full support from Europe and the US".
He rejected suggestions that the support his nomination received from Hezbollah, which is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Washington, would hinder the disbursement of much-needed Western aid.
"Everyone is willing to cooperate so that Lebanon can have an exceptional government that is not like its predecessors in the number of technocrats and women included," he said.
"I think the Americans, when such a government is formed, will lend support because it is a government that aims to rescue Lebanon."
- US visit -
The international community, which has been pressuring Lebanon to accelerate the formation of a new government, has yet to respond publicly to Diab's nomination.
Hale, on a visit Friday to Beirut, did not directly comment on Diab's appointment, saying only that the United States "has no role in saying who should lead" a Cabinet in Lebanon or anywhere else.
"I´m here to encourage Lebanon´s political leaders to commit to, and undertake, meaningful, sustained reforms that can lead to a stable, prosperous and secure Lebanon," he said after meeting with Michel Aoun. "It´s time to put aside partisan interests and act in the national interest, advancing reforms and forming a government that is committed to undertaking those reforms and capable of doing so."
Picking a new premier was only the first step and agreeing on a full cabinet line-up could take time, with Diab himself giving a timeframe of four to six weeks.
Diab is scheduled to begin consultations on Saturday.
Following a meeting with President Michel Aoun, the former US ambassador to Lebanon urged authorities to "act in the national interest, advancing reforms and forming a government that is committed to undertaking those reforms."
Hale later met with parliament speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri.
Hale is the most senior foreign diplomat to visit the country since mass protests erupted in mid-October. The sustained, leaderless protests forced Hariri's resignation within days but politicians were later unable to agree on a new prime minister.
Friendly nations, including France, have made clear they will not support the heavily indebted nation before a reform-minded Cabinet is formed.
While the huge crowds that filled the squares of Beirut and other Lebanese cities two months ago have dwindled, the protest movement has remained vibrant.
Tensions have been heightened by the looming bankruptcy of the debt-burdened Lebanese state.
The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the US dollar, has lost around 30 percent of its value on the black market, while companies have been paying half-salaries for the past two months and laying off staff.