Lebanon News

Lebanon's Cabinet formation awaits regional players

French President Emmanuel Macron removes his protective face mask as he attends a video-conference meeting ahead of 2021 Munich Security Conference at the Elysee palace in Paris, Friday Feb. 19, 2021. (Benoit Tessier/Pool via AP)

BEIRUT: As Arab and international pressures piled up on Lebanese factions to agree on the swift formation of a new government to deliver reforms, all signs indicate that the crises-ridden country is heading for a prolonged deadlock if top leaders refuse to budge on their conflicting positions, political sources said Wednesday.

Although Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has returned to Beirut after an Arab tour amid expectations that his return would revive talks on the stalled Cabinet formation process, there was no word Wednesday on a possible meeting this week between Hariri and President Michel Aoun to resolve their differences over a new government desperately awaited by the Lebanese to rescue them from multiple crises, implement essential reforms outlined in the French initiative and rebuild Beirut after last year’s huge Beirut Port explosion.

“A possible meeting between President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri does not seem to be on the horizon yet. It appears that the Cabinet formation process will be put on hold until after French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Saudi Arabia,” an official source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

However, Aoun’s opponents, mainly the Future Movement and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt, contend that the president and its ally, Hezbollah, are deliberately delaying the government formation, waiting for progress in the planned talks between the US and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program and that the Islamic republic was holding on to Lebanon card to use it at the negotiations table.

Macron’s visit to Riyadh is set for March while Tehran and Washington don't appear close to resuming direct contacts. In the meantime, behind-the-scene contacts will be held between Hariri and local players in a bid to break the stalemate that has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than six months, the source said.

“There will be no Cabinet breakthrough unless the top leaders soften their positions on the distribution of ministerial seats,” the source added.

More than four months after his designation on Oct. 22 to form a new Cabinet and after 16 meetings, Hariri and Aoun still disagree on the shape and size of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists, the distribution of key portfolios, namely the Interior and Justice ministries, and who gets to name the Christian ministers.

Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since the Aug. 4 blast 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 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ahead of his trip to Lebanon to rally support for the stalled French initiative to rescue Lebanon which has gained the backing of the United States and Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Iran wield great influence in Lebanon where the two rival regional heavyweights support opposing sides.

The French initiative basically calls for the formation of a “mission” government to implement a reform program contained in the initiative that had been agreed by Lebanon’s rival political leaders during Macron’s second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1.

A political source had told The Daily Star that Macron’s visit to Lebanon would not take place before Lebanese leaders agreed on the formation of a new government.

Hariri held talks with Macron on the hurdles hindering the Cabinet formation during a visit to Paris earlier this month as part of a tour that has also taken him to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt and Turkey aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states. Media reports said Hariri planned to also visit Britain and Germany.

Future Movement officials and an official source told The Daily Star Tuesday that Hariri had rejected a proposal for raising the proposed 18-member of nonpartisan specialists to 20 or 22 ministers, to add two ministerial seats, one for the Druze sect and the other for the Melkite Greek Catholic sect.

The proposal was made at a news conference Sunday by MP Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, as a possible solution to the government standoff. In addition to being spurned by Hariri, the proposal has failed to evoke any favorable response to help break the deadlock, apparently dashing hopes for an imminent solution to the crisis.

Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar said Hariri was adamant on his proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists without granting veto power to any party.

The European Union said in a statement Tuesday it was “impossible to support Lebanon in the absence of a reform-minded government,” while the European Commission warned that the situation in Lebanon was “deteriorating and a government should be formed without delay.”

A UN official made a similar appeal for the formation of a new government in Lebanon.

“The UN hopes that Lebanon’s leaders will prioritize Lebanon’s national interest and rapidly overcome their differences to form a new government that addresses the country’s numerous challenges, meets the aspirations of the Lebanese people and implements necessary reforms,” Najat Rochdi, officer in charge of the office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon and resident and humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon, said in a statement after a meeting with Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai Tuesday in Bkirki. “The UN remains committed to supporting Lebanon, its stability, political independence, and sovereignty,” she added.

In addition to discussing the deepening socio-economic crisis and its impact on the Lebanese people, Rochdi listened to Rai’s proposal and views on holding an international conference for Lebanon.

The FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc reiterated its call for the quick formation of a government based on constitutional and National Pact rules.

In a statement issued after its online weekly meeting chaired by Bassil Tuesday, the bloc expressed surprise over the lack of “positive responses” to the FPM leader’s initiative that called, in addition for raising the Cabinet members to 20 or 22, it offered to stay out of the new government in exchange for implementing urgent reforms.

The bloc voiced support for calls for representing the Druze sect with another minister and the Melkite Greek Catholic sect with another minister in the new government.

 

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