BEIRUT: The outcome of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on the Lebanese crisis was shrouded in complete secrecy Thursday, fueling speculation on whether any progress had been made in the ongoing attempts to break the monthslong Cabinet formation stalemate.
The Elysee Palace did not release a statement on the Hariri-Macron meeting Wednesday night, while Hariri’s media office issued a terse statement in Beirut that talked in generalities and saying the talks centered on ways to overcome difficulties blocking the formation of a new government in Lebanon.
During the two-hour "working dinner" at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, Hariri was believed to have briefed Macron on the obstacles he was facing in his attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms stipulated in the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Hariri, currently in Paris, 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 21 others in a massive suicide truck bombing on Feb. 14, 2005.
The Lebanese, as well as local and regional players, are waiting anxiously for Hariri’s televised speech Sunday on the anniversary to see if the Cabinet formation crisis, now in its sixth month, was finally headed for a breakthrough.
The Future Movement said Wednesday it had canceled the annual rally marking the anniversary because of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. It said in a statement that the anniversary would be marked only by Hariri’s televised speech.
A political source said Hariri’s speech would provide an indicator on whether the intensified French activity would lead to breaking the deadlock that has left crises-ridden country without a fully functioning government for more than six months.
“Hariri’s speech will serve as a precursor about any possible breakthrough to end the Cabinet gridlock,” the source told The Daily Star.
By all means, 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 specialists to implement a string 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 visit to Paris coincided with energetic French attempts, backed by the United States, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to reactivate the French initiative that has been stalled since Sept. 1 after rival political leaders failed to agree on the formation of a “mission” government of nonpartisan specialists stipulated in the initiative. The new government would be tasked with enacting 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.
Hariri visited Paris as part of a tour that has also taken him to the UAE, Egypt and Turkey aimed at repairing Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly countries.
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, 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.
Sky News channel Thursday quoted a source at the Elysee Palace as saying that Macron would not visit Lebanon unless progress was made on the formation of a new government.
An official Lebanese source told The Daily Star Thursday that a visit of a French presidential envoy, Patrick Durel, to Beirut, originally planned for the weekend to prepare for Macron’s trip, might be reconsidered in light of the Macron-Hariri meeting.
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.
Hezbollah’s parliamentary Loyalty to the Resistance bloc Thursday warned of an “indefinite deadlock” if the Lebanese leaders failed to agree on a “reformist vision” of the next government.” The bloc also renewed its call for the formation of a new government without further delay to tackle the country’s crises.
“The Lebanese are destined to agree even at the banking or economic level exactly like what is happening at the health level where the spirit of professional consensus is prevailing,” the bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting chaired by MP Mohammad Raad. It was referring to the authorities’ preventive measures, including a lockdown and a coronavirus inoculation campaign set to begin next Sunday.
“The country today is in dire need for the combined efforts of all constitutional institutions to deal with its burdens and pull it from under the pressure of the successive crises facing it at the financial, economic, health and administrative levels,” the statement said. “The current stage requires without any delay the formation of a new government boosted by its full constitutional powers and is capable of acting boldly and quickly to achieve the interests of the Lebanese and care for their affairs in and outside the country,” it added.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah is expected to touch on the Cabinet crisis, among other topics, in a televised speech next Tuesday marking the group’s annual anniversary of slain Hezbollah commanders.
Hariri's attempts since his designation to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to carry out reforms have hit snags over a deepening rift with President Michel 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.