BEIRUT: Unruffled by strong opposition from Hezbollah and the top Shiite religious authority, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai appeared Thursday to be determined to forge ahead with his controversial call for a UN-sponsored international conference to resolve Lebanon’s deepening political and economic crises.
However, given the deep-rooted political divisions among rival factions on key sensitive and contentious issues such as Rai’s call, there are doubts that the patriarch’s proposal would make any headway as previous attempts since the 1975-90 Civil War to internationalize the Lebanese crisis have been unsuccessful.
“Our proposal for an international conference came because we are unable to reach understanding, conduct any dialogue or reach an agreement with each other. The international community is responsible for an effective and founding member of the United Nations and it must officially and seriously extend a hand of assistance,” Rai told delegations from “Sayedat al-Jabal Gathering” and other groups opposed to Hezbollah’s growing influence in Lebanon that visited him at his seat in Bkirki Thursday to express support for his proposal.
Rai called on every party to draw up “a blueprint on our problem in Lebanon so that it can be presented as a unified blueprint to the United Nations.”
“The people can no longer endure all the financial, economic and political crises. No country in the world has reached what we have reached. Therefore, we cannot remain hand-folded and see our sons suffering from poverty and need,” he said.
Delegations from the country’s main Christian parties, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party, as well as officials from across the political spectrum have visited Bkirki in the past few days to show support for Rai’s call for Lebanon’s case to be discussed at a UN-sponsored international conference.
Rai’s call is bound to stir controversy in the politically divided country as many parties, namely Hezbollah and its allies, oppose internationalization of the Lebanese crisis. The patriarch’s proposal 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 country that is reeling from multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown, a collapsing currency, an alarming surge in coronavirus infections and a high mortality rate and political divisions.
The delegations’ visits come as preparations are underway to stage a popular rally in Bkirki Saturday to show solidarity with Rai’s call for an international conference and also for declaring Lebanon’s “neutrality.” Media outlets said the rally was expected to draw thousands of supporters from the LF, Kataeb and other Christian parties and political activists.
Rai Thursday received a phone call from Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri during which they discussed the stalled government formation process.
Rai also met with General Security chief Maj. General Abbas Ibrahim, who is mediating in the deepening rift between President Michel Aoun and Hariri that has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than six months.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ibrahim said he discussed with Rai the government formation crisis. “I am taking charge of the part of the [mediation] efforts and his beatitude is handling the other part. That’s why we have to meet every now and then to complete the efforts in the hope things will improve,” Ibrahim said.
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 to deliver reforms, the distribution of key portfolios, namely the Interior and Justice ministries, and who gets to name the Christian ministers.
Also, a French initiative, designed to rescue Lebanon that basically calls for the formation of a “mission” government to implement a reform program contained in the initiative agreed by Lebanon’s rival political leaders during French President Emmanuel Macron’s second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1, remains stalled.
A delegation from the FPM lawmakers met with Rai Thursday ahead of the planned rally. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, MP Roger Azar said Rai briefed the delegation on his proposals for “ensuring the international circumstances supporting Lebanon with the aim of lifting it out of the pressing crises, particularly the economic crisis.”
Asked whether the FPM would participate in Saturday’s rally, Azar said: “As we understood, parties will not participate in this activity. We and others must not participate and let it be a popular participation.That’s better.”
In discussing the monthslong Cabinet deadlock, Azar said the patriarch called for the formation of a new government as soon as possible within “constitutional and National Pact rules and on the basis of complete national partnership.”
The day before, LF leader Samir Geagea sent a delegation from the LF’s parliamentary Strong Republic bloc to Bkirki to express support for Rai’s call and positions.
In a statement after the meeting with Rai, the LF delegation implicitly slammed Hezbollah for criticizing Rai’s call. “Those who attacked Patriarch Rai’s proposal had agreed to the Baabda Declaration [designed] to neutralize Lebanon from the policy of axes and regional and international struggles,” it said.
Former Minister Ghazi Aridi met Rai Wednesday as a special envoy from Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt to voice support for the patriarch’s proposal. “The international conference is aimed at bringing states together on supporting Lebanon as had happened in more than one conference, from Saint Cloud [in France in 2007], to Taif [in Saudi Arabia in 1989] and others,” Aridi said in a statement after the meeting with Rai.
Rai issued his call for an international conference on Lebanon earlier this month after expressing his frustration over the failure of local mediation efforts to resolve the Cabinet formation crisis. 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.
Reacting to Rai’s call for an international conference, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has warned against attempts to internationalize the Lebanese crisis. He rejected any form of internationalization “because it is a danger to Lebanon.”
“Internationalization hurts Lebanon and complicates matters and it contradicts sovereignty and could be a cover for a new occupation,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech earlier this month. “What guarantees will be given to Lebanon amid the guarantees of the Big Powers to Israel?” he asked.
Nasrallah cautioned that internationalization of Lebanon’s crisis might impose the choice of “resettling Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrians” permanently in Lebanon.
Earlier this month, the Higher Islamic Shiite Council also rejected Rai’s 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 with France’s Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo at the council’s headquarters south of Beirut on Feb. 8.
Grand Jaafarite Shiite Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Qabalan warned that the international conference proposal would destroy Lebanon’s coexistence formula. “The call for holding an international conference under UN auspices allegedly to rescue Lebanon is [an attempt] to do away with Lebanon’s formula. Internationalization has been at the root of Lebanon’s crisis since it was founded [in 1943],” Qabalan said.