BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai’s drive for an international conference to rescue Lebanon and declare its neutrality is threatening to deepen divisions in the already politically-split country reeling from multiple crises.
Rai’s repeated calls for declaring Lebanon’s “neutrality” toward regional conflicts and a UN-sponsored international conference to resolve the country’s worsening political and economic crises appeared to have overshadowed the stalled Cabinet formation process, which enters its seventh month next week with no solution in sight.
It was not immediately known whether Rai’s calls would further delay or accelerate the formation of a new government badly needed to implement essential reforms outlined in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crisis in decades.
Rai repeated his calls for an international conference and Lebanon’s “neutrality” in a speech Saturday addressing thousands of Lebanese, mainly from Christian parties and civil groups who gathered outside the patriarch’s seat in Bkirki to show support for his calls. The majority of the crowd attending the rally, chiefly supporters of the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party, estimated by Rai at 15,000 though observers believe the number was much lower, staunchly oppose Hezbollah’s growing influence in the country and want the heavily armed Iranian-backed group to be disarmed.
“I don’t know if what happened in Bkirki Saturday will accelerate or delay the Cabinet formation. It depends on the parties’ reactions to the patriarch’s speech,” an official source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star Sunday.
“An attempt to separate the Cabinet crisis from the patriarch’s speech might help keep the Cabinet file alive. But if the patriarch’s speech is linked to a solution to the Cabinet crisis, this will complicate matters,” the source said.
The source said there was nothing new in the Cabinet crisis as a mediation attempt by General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim to break the deadlock has so far not yielded any positive results. Ibrahim, who is mediating in the deepening rift between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri over the government formation, met with Rai Thursday as part of his ongoing efforts.
There was no immediate reaction from the president to Rai’s speech. “We have no comment on the patriarch’s speech,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.
Speaking in his sermon Sunday in Bkirki, Rai highlighted the importance of Lebanon’s neutrality and an international conference to rescue Lebanon. He said he had called for an international conference because rival Lebanese politicians had been unable to enter into dialogue and reach an agreement to solve the country’s accumulated problems, including the formation of a new government.
The patriarch said the people who gathered in Bkirki to support the demand for convening a UN-sponsored international conference on Lebanon did so because of the “inability of the political elite to meet, reach understanding, enter into dialogue and diagnose the disease that has paralyzed the state’s constitutional institutions, treasury, economy and finances, which led to its disintegration and the people fell victim to starvation, poverty, unemployment, suppression and deprivation.”
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 had been unsuccessful.
In addition to stirring a nationwide controversy, Rai’s call was expected to exacerbate political splits in the country, as many parties, namely Hezbollah and its allies, oppose internationalization of the Lebanese crisis.
Except for the Free Patriotic Movement, all Christian parties, in addition to independents and a number of civil groups, have supported Rai’s call.
In the first reaction from Hezbollah which had already rejected Rai’s call for Lebanon’s neutrality and for an international conference, the group’s MP Hasan Fadlallah told LBCI channel: “His beatitude the patriarch has his own opinions and we have ours. He sees in internationalization a solution to Lebanon’s problem. We see this proposal [internationalization] a complication of the problem because [foreign] states are interested only in their interests and they have calculations.”
“We cannot ignore the Israeli factor when talking about internationalization which is a danger to Lebanon. We have seen what happened in Libya, Iraq and Syria due to internationalization. Did [internationalization] protect the Christians in those countries?” he said, stressing that a solution to Lebanon’s crisis must come from within the country.
“The absence of an agreement among the Lebanese on internal solutions does not mean inviting other countries to impose their guardianship,” Fadlallah said. “We have no objection to an international assistance to Lebanon. We have welcomed and supported the French initiative.”
Referring to supporters from Christian parties who shouted insults at Hezbollah during Saturday’s rally, Fadlallah said: “We respect Bkirki as a [religious] authority of a section of the Lebanese. We don’t want any divisions among the Lebanese. There were those who tried to exploit Bkirki to consecrate sectarian alienation and divisions.”
Fadlallah denied reports that Hezbollah has been boycotting Rai in protest over his visit to Jerusalem in 2014. “Our policy is not based on boycott but on meeting and debating. Contacts with Bkirki have not been severed.”
Although the Future Movement has not yet commented on Rai’s calls, a Future parliamentary bloc delegation is set to meet with the patriarch Monday as part of its calls on spiritual leaders to brief them on ongoing contacts over the formation of a new government. A Future bloc delegation met Thursday with Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian.
Asked whether the Future bloc supported Rai’s calls, Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star: “The call for an international conference is a scream issued by the patriarch after all roads to bring Lebanon and the government out of the prison in which the president has put them have been blocked.”
On declaring Lebanon a neutral state, Hajjar said: “We have approved the Baabda Declaration and called for positive neutrality whereby Lebanon will not be part of the policy of regional axes. Lebanon is an Arab country that supports Arab rights and does not side with this or that regional power.”
The Higher Islamic Shiite Council, which had already rejected Rai’s call for an international conference on Lebanon, warned against inviting foreign troops to the country under the slogan of “neutrality” to change the balance of power which is currently in favor of Hezbollah and its allies.
In a statement Saturday apparently intended shortly before Rai’s speech, Sheikh Ali Khatib, deputy head of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council, said: “National responsibility requires the quick formation of a government capable of dealing with the suffocating monetary, financial and economic crises and emerging from the state of creating difficulties exercised by some political forces that clears the way for a total collapse and inviting foreign troops in a repeat of previous experiments to put Lebanon under a foreign will with the aim of upsetting the balance of power under the slogan of neutrality.”
The FPM, which did not participate in the Bkirki rally, stressed that neutrality required an inter-Lebanese accord.
“Declaring Lebanon a neutral state is useful at the national level and achieving it requires a set of conditions, including an agreement among the Lebanese on it and acceptance of this by the neighboring states,” said a statement issued after the online weekly meeting of the FPM’s Political Committee chaired by FPM leader MP Gebran Bassil Saturday.
The committee warned against “any international project that opens the door to internal crises and is exploited externally to resolve regional crises at Lebanon’s expense.”
MP Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, called for an inter-Lebanese consensus on the issue of internationalization. “The proposed internationalization needs unanimity among the Lebanese, or else it will remain booby-trapped and will increase our schism and divisions at the expense of everything. We will be subjected to further regional and international calculations,” Arslan, an ally of the FPM and Hezbollah, said in a statement.