BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is set to visit Paris this week for talks with senior French officials, including President Emmanuel Macron, on the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock before returning to Beirut, a senior Future Movement official said Monday.
Hariri is currently in Abu Dhabi after visiting Egypt and Turkey as part of a tour aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly countries.
“Prime Minister Hariri is expected to fly from Abu Dhabi to Paris where he will hold talks with senior French officials, including President Macron, on the Lebanese crisis,” the Future official told The Daily Star.
In addition to briefing Macron on the results of his own internal and external contacts on the Lebanese crisis, the official said, Hariri was expected to inform the French president on the obstacles he was facing in his attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms stipulated in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Hariri is slated to return to Beirut before the weekend to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed along with 21 others in a massive suicide truck bombing on Feb. 14, 2005.
The premier-designate was expected to deliver Sunday a televised keynote speech on the occasion in which he would dwell on the hurdles he has been encountering since his designation on Oct. 22 to form a government comprising nonpartisan experts to be tasked with implementing a slew of economic and administrative reforms deemed essential to unlocking billions of dollars in promised international assistance to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.
Hariri’s return to Beirut this week from a foreign trip was expected to intensify contacts, including a possible meeting with President Michel Aoun, in an attempt to end the Cabinet gridlock.
Lebanon has been left without an effective government since Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the Beirut Port explosion, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.
The crippling economic crisis has been exacerbated by an alarming surge in coronavirus infections and a high mortality rate, as well as the grave repercussions of the massive Aug. 4 blast that 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 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.
Hariri’s planned visit to Paris coincided with energetic 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.
In a move reflecting unity on Lebanon for the first time following Macron’s phone conversation with US President Joe Biden last month, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called in a joint statement last week 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.
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
A political source told The Daily Star Sunday that Macron’s visit to Lebanon would not take place before Lebanese leaders agreed on the formation of a new government to implement reforms contained in the French initiative. The source confirmed that a French presidential envoy would visit Beirut to prepare for Macron’s trip.
The French initiative will run in tandem with an initiative launched by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to help break the Cabinet deadlock.
The Amal Movement headed by Berri said Monday the speaker’s initiative constituted a “practical solution” to the Cabinet crisis.
“In the face of some who are insisting on trespassing the spirit and letter of the Constitution and creating new norms and rules in the roles of institutions and their presidency, the [Amal] politburo stressed the need to follow up on Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s rescue initiative which constituted a practical solution to reaching the formation of a new government to carry out financial, administrative and economic reforms,” said a statement issued after the online weekly meeting of Amal’s politburo.
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 jab 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.
Meanwhile, in the first reaction to Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai’s call for an international conference on Lebanon’s crisis, the Higher Islamic Shiite Council rejected the call, saying that internationalization of the crisis would infringe on Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“We bless every endeavor that helps in bolstering stability in Lebanon. But we reject the call for internationalizing the Lebanese crisis because it causes infringement on Lebanon’s sovereignty and additional complications to the crisis which we can do without,” Sheikh Ali Khatib, deputy head of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council, said during a meeting Monday with France’s Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo at the council’s headquarters south of Beirut.
Voicing support for the French initiative, Khatib said: “The confessional system in Lebanon is at the root of all crises that happen every now and then. It needs completing the implementation of the Taif Accord with regard to the abolition of political confessionalism and the creation of a senate.”
Speaking in his Sunday’s sermon, Rai 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 for an international conference followed his call last year for declaring Lebanon “neutrality” toward regional conflicts, another contentious issue that had stirred a row in the politically divided country.
Rai Sunday repeated his call for a system of neutrality, and in an indirect jab at Hezbollah’s arms arsenal, he called for guarantees to “put an end to the plurality of arms.”