BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s return to Beirut this week from a foreign trip is expected to intensify contacts, including a possible meeting with President Michel Aoun, in an attempt to break the Cabinet formation deadlock, political sources said Sunday.
This comes as Lebanon’s political adversaries are coming under mounting Arab and international pressures to resolve their differences and agree on the rapid formation of a rescue government to enact essential reforms badly needed to release billions of dollars in promised foreign aid to the cash-strapped country.
The planned resumption of internal political activity over the Cabinet formation crisis, now in its sixth month, coincided with fresh French attempts, backed by the United States and Egypt, to revive the stalled French initiative to save Lebanon from multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that is threatening for the first time the country’s stability and security.
“It is clear that the political activity that is taking place abroad has shifted the limelight to outside Lebanon. No doubt, French President Emmanuel Macron’s moves [to resolve the Lebanese crisis] have begun with his phone contact with US President Joe Biden [last month] and his contacts with the Iranians,” a political source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star.
The source said the Macron-Biden conversation, which covered the situation in Lebanon among major topics discussed by the two presidents, was followed up by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who called in a joint statement issued Thursday on Lebanese officials to “finally implement their commitment to form a credible and effective government and to work toward carrying out the necessary reforms” and provide the findings of the investigations into the Beirut Port explosion.
“Now this matter [French-US consensus on Lebanon] should be translated into action. But nothing can be done before Prime Minister Hariri returns from a foreign trip to Lebanon,” the source said.
“When Hariri returns, it will be easy to understand the political inclination in the country because the premier-designate was sounding out the international attitudes in the visits he has made. By the time he returns, Hariri will have charted out a political course on whose basis he will act with regard to the government formation,” the source added.
Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the port blast, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity. The massive Aug. 4 explosion devastated Beirut’s port, damaged half of the capital, killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused billions of dollars in material damage.
Hariri's attempts since his designation on Oct. 22 to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to implement reforms have foundered over a deepening rift with Aoun over the distribution of key ministries and naming of Christian ministers. Aoun and Hariri have not met for more than a month since differences emerged between the two over a draft Cabinet lineup the premier-designate presented to the president on Dec. 9.
There was no word Sunday as to when Hariri, who has visited Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt and planned to go to France as part of a tour aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly countries, would return to Beirut.
In addition to rallying US and Egyptian support for the French initiative, the source disclosed that French officials were also in contact with the Vatican on the Lebanese crisis.
“The French-American-Vatican moves will have a great impact on this issue [Cabinet formation], but this will have to wait until Hariri returns to Beirut,” the source said.
Macron last month announced he planned to make a third visit to Lebanon, saying that France's road map for resolving the deepening Lebanese crisis was still on the table
The same source said that Macron’s visit to Lebanon would not take place before Lebanese leaders agreed on the formation of a new government to implement reforms outlined in the French initiative. The source confirmed that a French presidential envoy would visit Beirut to prepare for Macron’s trip.
However, the source stressed that any solution to the government crisis reached outside Lebanon, would have to be “endorsed by Lebanese leaders so that things would not appear as if external powers were interfering in internal Lebanese affairs.”
“Here comes the role of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri who has launched an initiative [to break the Cabinet deadlock]. This initiative will be activated in the event of encouraging external moves. It is unacceptable to say that external powers have formed a government for Lebanon. That’s why Berri is ready to play the role of giving a Lebanese façade [to the external solution] through his initiative,” the source said.
In a statement on Feb. 1 breaking his silence on the Cabinet crisis, Berri disclosed that he had made a proposal for the formation of a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists but it got bogged down over a demand for “a blocking third”, or veto power, in what appeared to be an indirect spike at Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, who were reported to have made such a demand. Berri said no party should be granted veto power otherwise, a government of nonpartisan specialists proposed by Hariri would be worthless.
In remarks published Saturday, Berri said his initiative was still on the table. “The French-American stance is good. The Americans are now standing by the side of the French in their endeavor. But the ball is in our court as Lebanese. Responsibility falls on us in the first place because it is our people who are suffering pain and our economy that is crumbling,” Berri said.
Meanwhile, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai Sunday called for Lebanon’s case to be discussed at a UN-sponsored international conference, expressing his frustration over the failure of local mediation efforts to resolve the Cabinet crisis.
Rai’s call is bound to stir a controversy in the politically-divided country as many parties, namely Hezbollah and its allies, oppose internationalization of the Lebanese crisis.
“The collapsing situation of Lebanon, which according to the preamble of the Constitution, is a founding and committed member in the League of Arab States and a founding and committed member in the United Nations Organization, requires that its case be brought up at a special international conference under the United Nations auspices that will confirm Lebanon in its modern constitutional frameworks based on the unity of the entity, a system of neutrality and ensuring permanent guarantees for Lebanon’s existence,” Rai said in his sermon Sunday in Bkirki.
Taking an indirect jab at Hezbollah’s arms arsenal, Rai said such guarantees should “prevent attacks on Lebanon and infringing on its legitimacy, put an end to the plurality of arms and deal with the absence of a clear constitutional authority to settle disputes.”
The patriarch warned that the Lebanese would again revolt against the deteriorating living conditions and he lamented that his repeated calls on Aoun and Hariri to agree on the swift formation of a government to rescue Lebanon had been ignored.
“Lebanon’s situation has reached a dangerous phase ... The situation has surpassed the government [formation] to the fate of the nation ... Our people are dying and the state doesn’t exist. All the world states have sympathized with the people of Lebanon except the state,” Rai said.
Referring to his failed mediation bid in the dispute between Aoun and Hariri over the Cabinet formation, Rai said: “We have made an appeal, but they did not hear. We have asked, but they did not answer and we have made an initiative, but they did not respond.”