Lebanon News

Hariri and Bassil in Paris as Berri softens stance

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaking during the Lebanon-U.K. Business and Investment Forum in London, on Dec. 12, 2018. (The Daily Star/ Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: Lebanon entered its ninth month without a government Thursday but political sources cited a prevailing sense of optimism over a possible forthcoming breakthrough.

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri relaunched his efforts to reach a solution earlier this week.

He left Beirut for Paris Thursday evening for a “short family visit,” a statement from his office said.

A source close to caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told The Daily Star later in the evening that he was also in Paris following his trip to Davos for the World Economic Forum, and would meet with Hariri in the French capital.

Unconfirmed reports also said that Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea was in Paris.

Bassil and FPM founder President Michel Aoun have been calling for 11 out of 30 ministers in the next Cabinet - equivalent to a third plus one minister that grants a bloc veto power.

Hezbollah, an ally of Bassil and Aoun, has been blocking Hariri’s efforts with its demand to grant Cabinet representation to a group of six Sunni MPs that are not affiliated with the premier’s Future Movement.

Aoun originally refused the demand but later agreed to allow a Sunni minister from his share to be named by the six MPs, who are known as the Consultative Gathering. A political source said Bassil appeared to have softened his stance, apparently allowing this minister to represent the Gathering and not the FPM. “But the minister will not vote against Aoun on agenda items in Cabinet sessions,” the source added.

One of the MPs, Jihad al-Samand, will host a meeting of the group at his Tripoli residence Friday to issue their “final stance.”

In addition to the pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs obstacle, there is still some “fine-tuning” needed, according to the source, over a “couple” of ministerial portfolios.

Hariri is reportedly trying to convince Speaker Nabih Berri to cede control of the Environment Ministry to Bassil, while Berri is demanding the Industry or Culture Ministry in return. “This is somewhat of a backing down from Berri as he is now open to having the Culture or Industry ministry alongside the Finance and Agriculture ministries,” the source said.

The previous draft lineup granted the Industry Ministry to the Progressive Socialist Party, which is headed by Walid Joumblatt.

The source said that Joumblatt does not want to give up this ministry or the Education Ministry, which was also promised to the PSP in the initial lineup.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Joumblatt Wednesday, Hariri inspired renewed hope that the Cabinet stalemate was coming to an end, alluding to “positive developments” and saying “next week will be decisive.” However, if Hariri’s new push fails to materialize, the source said that he will make a major move next week.

His options are to resign or threaten to resign, name the culprits behind the delay or announce the reactivation of the caretaker government.

Ten days ago, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said Washington “encourages” the caretaker government to move forward in order to avoid further damage to the economy and to maintain international confidence.

Bassil said while he was in Davos that he went to the economic conference in order to reach out to the international community to maintain Lebanon’s stability and to “correct the picture of the economic situation in Lebanon.”

Speaking to Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, Bassil said he was trying to encourage countries to support Lebanon politically and economically as well as invest in Lebanese treasury bonds.

He also said that “we have counted on [Saudi Arabia] to help Lebanon.”

“We are asking for a profitable investment for the countries, and at the same time a signal of confidence in Lebanon, and therefore we hope that Saudi Arabia will take the initiative to benefit Lebanon and its economy,” Bassil said.

The caretaker foreign minister noted that this would encourage other Gulf countries to follow suit.

“It is my duty to communicate with all countries, especially friends of Lebanon, led by Saudi Arabia,” Bassil said.

Earlier Thursday, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari reiterated his country’s full support for Lebanon and said he would follow up on remarks made by the kingdom’s finance minister in Davos.

“We are interested in seeing stability in Lebanon and we will support Lebanon all the way,” Saudi Finance Minister Mohammad al-Jadaan said Tuesday in an interview with CNBC, when asked whether his country was willing to make a commitment similar to Qatar’s pledge to buy $500 million in Lebanese government bonds.

After a meeting with former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel Thursday, Bukhari said: “We will follow up on the minister’s statements from Davos” and look at practical ways to ensure Saudi Arabia’s ongoing support for Lebanon, according to a statement from Gemayel’s office.

Qatar’s decision to buy the government bonds as a means of bolstering Lebanon’s economy came after Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani participated in the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut this past weekend. Jadaan also participated in the summit, heading the Saudi delegation.

Apart from Saudi Arabia, Egypt also expressed hope that Lebanon would see a new government soon. “We are careful not to interfere in the government formation because it is an internal matter, but what concerns us is the stability of Lebanon, because its stability is part of the stability of the region and we would like Lebanon to contribute to the stability of the region,” Cairo’s Ambassador to Lebanon Nazih Najjari said after meeting Hariri in Beirut.

The Egyptian diplomat said, “We hope all parties would seek the formation of the Lebanese government in the interest of Lebanon and its stability.”

Separately, Aoun met with caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and MP Ibrahim Kanaan, the head of Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee, after which they agreed to maintain funding for wages and bonds until a new government is formed and it passes the 2019 budget.

Lebanon enjoys the world’s third highest debt-to-GDP ratio and economists have warned of an imminent financial crisis if serious reforms aren’t carried out.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 25, 2019, on page 1.

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