BEIRUT: While the Lebanese awaited the outcome of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s crucial talks in Paris on the Lebanese crisis, a French initiative to rescue Lebanon appeared to be gaining wide Arab support, a key element for its success.
A broad-based Arab support is deemed essential for the revival and success of the stalled French initiative that calls for the formation of a “mission” government of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms in order to save Lebanon from multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 80 percent of its value since 2019, and subsequently put half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.
After gaining the backing of the United States, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar has also voiced support for the French initiative.
During a visit to Beirut Tuesday, Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told Lebanese leaders they needed to form a new government before they could get aid to pull the country from its worst economic and financial crisis in decades.
Asked if his visit was intended to unravel the French initiative, the Qatari minister said: “Not at all. The state of Qatar will support any path that leads to the formation of a government in Lebanon. We are not seeking to undermine the French initiative. We are working to back up the international efforts to form a government [in Lebanon].”
Hariri is currently in Paris after visiting the UAE, Egypt and Turkey as part of a tour aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly countries.
The premier-designate is set to hold talks with senior French officials, including President Emmanuel Macron, on the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock before returning to Beirut later this week, a senior Future Movement official had told The Daily Star.
It was not immediately known when Hariri would meet with Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since the massive Aug. 4 explosion that devastated Beirut Port and left half of the capital in ruins.
Hariri was expected to brief Macron on the obstacles he was facing in his attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to implement 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’s visit to Paris coincided with energetic French attempts, backed by the United States and Egypt, to reactivate the French initiative.
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. Media reports said Macron planned to also visit the UAE and Saudi Arabia ahead of his trip to Lebanon to rally support for the French initiative.
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.
Despite strained ties over the Cabinet formation, Hariri Wednesday spoke by telephone with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt, discussing various developments in the Cabinet formation crisis and the general conditions in the country.
The two leaders had “a common approach to the current developments,” a statement issued by the PSP’s media office said. Joumblatt was reportedly not happy with the portfolios of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture allotted by Hariri to a Druze minister loyal to the PSP leader.
Hariri is slated to return to Beirut by 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 Future Movement said Wednesday it had canceled the annual central rally marking the anniversary given the “extraordinary circumstances in the country as a result of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.” The movement said in a statement that the anniversary would be marked only by a televised speech to be delivered by Hariri. It called on Future branches in Lebanese areas not to carry out any activities or gatherings to preserve public safety.
A political source said if no breakthrough was made in the Cabinet deadlock before Feb. 14, Hariri was expected to touch in his speech 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.
Lebanon has been left without an effective government since 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.
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.
Amid an intensified flurry of activity both internally and externally aimed at breaking the Cabinet formation impasse, Aoun has sent clear signals that he would not make concessions to facilitate the formation.
In a statement released by the presidency’s media office Tuesday, Aoun rejected local calls for him to tone down his conditions for the Cabinet formation. The statement also refuted allegations that Aoun demanded veto power as a condition for accepting Hariri’s proposed Cabinet lineup.
“Some politicians and media people talk about concessions the President of the Republic Gen. Michel Aoun must make while talking about a solution to the formation of the next government,” the statement said.
“What’s true is that the so-called concessions are in fact constitutional rights which the president is keen on preserving and calling for achieving them based on his national, constitutional and [National] Pact responsibilities. These responsibilities cannot at any time enter the dictionary of concessions because they are constant principles that must not be abandoned under any circumstances,” the statement added.