BEIRUT: The head of one of Lebanon's top security agencies retired Friday without a replacement, a casualty of the political and institutional paralysis which is stoking fears of a broader breakdown. "The country is in a state of almost total disintegration," said analyst Karim Bitar. "We are seeing the collapse of all state institutions that were still holding up."

Lebanon is navigating a devastating economic crisis that has plunged more than 80 percent of the population into poverty, according to the United Nations. Strikes and absenteeism have paralyzed public services, the state is barely able to provide a few hours of mains electricity a day, and the local currency has lost most of its value against the greenback since 2019.

Largely politically rudderless, Lebanon has been run by a caretaker government with limited powers since legislative elections in May last year. Former president Michel Aoun left office at the end of October, and sectarian leaders have been squabbling over a replacement ever since. Politicians have now failed to extend the mandate of retiring spymaster Abbas Ibrahim, head of the General Security agency, or name a replacement.

During more than a decade in the job, Ibrahim had to tackle numerous thorny challenges including the Syrian war's spill-over into Lebanon, and was seen by many as a political mediator between the country's divided political barons. He also successfully mediated in the release of hostages held in Syria.

The current crisis "is probably the most serious in Lebanon's history", said Bitar of a country that endured civil conflict from 1975 to 1990 amid other shocks. "The state cannot even manage to collect taxes," Bitar said, while simple things such as vehicle registration have become almost impossible. The failure to appoint a successor to Ibrahim is symptomatic of much deeper gridlock.

With parliament split between supporters of the Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah and its opponents - neither of which has a clear majority - Lebanese lawmakers have made 11 unsuccessful attempts to elect a new head of state. Two independent lawmakers have been camped out in parliament since the last failed vote in mid-January, saying they will stay until a new president is elected.

"The status quo is unsustainable. It is paralyzing the state at all levels," said the International Support Group for Lebanon on Thursday. The group, which includes the United States, several EU member states, Gulf countries, Russia and China, urged politicians to elect a new president "without further delay", saying it was "gravely concerned about the ramifications of a prolonged presidential vacuum".

By convention, Lebanon's presidency goes to a Maronite Christian, the premiership is reserved for a Sunni Muslim and the post of parliament speaker goes to a Shiite Muslim. Bishops from Lebanon's Maronite Christian community have called for "a day of prayers" on March 10, hoping divine intervention will help elect a new president. Lebanon has also yet to enact most of the reforms needed to access billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help dig itself out of the economic crisis.

As part of international efforts to resolve the political impasse, France on Feb 6 hosted a meeting with representatives from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. They agreed Lebanon's next president must be a unifying figure who is "capable of regaining the confidence of the international community", a Western diplomatic source told AFP on condition of anonymity due to the confidentiality of the discussions. The future head of state will also have to work with a new government that brings forward reform plans and sends "a signal of change", the source added.

The most prominent candidates appear to be army chief Joseph Aoun - who has good relations with most political parties - and former minister and Hezbollah ally Sleiman Frangieh, other sources close to the meeting's participants said. For analyst Bitar, only "an agreement between regional powers" - namely archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia - can unblock the situation and allow the election of a president. But as the deadlock spreads, he expressed fear of "an even worse economic deterioration that could lead to security incidents". - AFP