Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician, Saad Hariri, has re-emerged as a candidate for prime minister as businessman Samir Khatib withdrew his candidacy to lead a government that must tackle an acute economic crisis.
President Michel Aoun responded by postponing until December 16 consultations with legislators that had been expected to result in Khatib being named prime minister on Monday. The delay was requested by most parties in Parliament, the presidency said on Sunday.
Hariri quit as prime minister on October 29, prompted by mass protests against an entire political class blamed for state corruption and steering Lebanon into the worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
Under the country's power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim. Hariri has continued to govern in a caretaker capacity until a new prime minister is named.
After Hariri quit, talks to agree a new cabinet became mired in divisions between Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, and adversaries including the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah.
Last month, Hariri officially withdrew his candidacy to be prime minister.
A consensus on Khatib appeared to form last week among the main parties, including Hariri. But Khatib failed to win enough backing from the Sunni Muslim establishment for the position.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, Lebanon's most senior Sunni leader, told Khatib during a meeting on Sunday that he backed Hariri, Khatib said after the meeting.
"I learned ... that as a result of meetings and consultations and contacts with the sons of the (Sunni) Islamic sect, agreement was reached on nominating Saad al-Hariri to form the coming government," Khatib said.
There was no immediate statement from Hariri.
'Hariri is no exception'
Protesters gathered outside Parliament after the announcement for scheduled rallies to protest the way the government is being formed and the delays in choosing a candidate amid the downward spiral of the economy.
They were quick to denounce Hariri's possible return as a contender for the job.
"We want an independent head of government," said Layal Siblani, one of hundreds of protesters gathered outside Parliament.
"Hariri is no exception. He is one of the pillars of this authority, he and his family ... They should not portray him as our saviour because he has good international contacts."
Siblani also protested the role of the religious authority in naming or supporting a candidate.
"The head of the government is for all people. We should all know that and that there is no room for religious authorities to interfere."
Security forces prevented the protesters from marching to Hariri's office, tightening roadblocks and scuffling with some who tried to push their way out of a cordon.
Heavy rains didn't stop dozens of protesters from reaching the outside of Hariri's office chanting: "You will not come back, Hariri," and "Revolution."
In recent days, in his role as caretaker prime minister, Hariri appealed to friendly foreign states to help Lebanon secure credit lines for essential imports as the country grapples with a hard currency shortage.
He has said he would return as prime minister only if he could lead a technocratic government of specialist ministers which he believes would satisfy protesters and be best placed to deal with the economic crisis and attract foreign aid.
But this demand has been rejected by groups including Hezbollah and its ally Aoun, a Maronite Christian, who say the government must include politicians.