Lebanon News

Amid stalled French initiative, eyes on Berri to break Cabinet deadlock

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri arrives to attend the national talks at Baabda Palace, June 25, 2020. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: With a French initiative to rescue Lebanon stalled and an unsuccessful attempt by the Maronite patriarch to nudge the president and the prime minister-designate into agreeing on the formation of a new government, attention is focused on Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to intervene to help break the Cabinet deadlock.

A high-ranking Shiite mufti pleaded with Berri to launch an initiative to heal the rift between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and help in the formation of a national salvation government to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, including an economic meltdown that is threatening the country’s security and stability for the first time since the 1975-90 Civil War.

“To continue leaving Lebanon without a government is extremely dangerous, especially under the current conditions. What’s more dangerous is the mentality of closing the doors and leaving the country to floods,” Grand Jaafarite Shiite Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Qabalan said in a statement Saturday, referring to the absence of contacts between Aoun and Hariri to resolve the Cabinet crisis, now in its sixth month.

“The formation of a national salvation government is essential, urgent and inevitable. There should be a reconciliation among wise [leaders] in order to save the Cabinet formation. We are counting on Speaker Nabih Berri to undertake an initiative to patch up the rift between brothers and partners [Aoun and Hariri] because the country is on its last breath,” added Qabalan, a son of Sheikh Abdel-Amir Qabalan, head of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council, the country’s highest Shiite religious authority, in which Berri wields great influence.

Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the massive explosion that devastated Beirut Port and left half of the capital in ruins.

Berri was quoted by visitors as saying he was waiting for tensions between Aoun and Hariri to ease before intervening. This was confirmed Sunday by MP Mohammad Khawaja, who belongs to Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc.

“Speaker Berri is not absent from initiatives. But he will not undertake an initiative unless it enjoys a minimum of success. The proof is what happened with Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rai,” Khawaja told a local radio station, referring to the collapse of Rai’s mediation efforts in the dispute between Aoun and Hariri. “When the conflicting parties are ready to listen, Speaker Berri will then be ready [to intervene],” he added.

Long-simmering tensions between the president and the premier-designate, who last month publicly traded accusations of responsibility for obstructing the formation of an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative, came to a head last week when Aoun was shown in a leaked video calling Hariri a liar.

Aoun’s accusation has exacerbated the impasse in the Cabinet formation process, already stymied by a disagreement between the president and the premier-designate over the distribution of key ministries. The video episode has deepened a crisis of confidence between the two leaders and ramped up political tensions in the crises-ridden country.

Some politicians warned that Lebanon risked descending into an open-ended Cabinet crisis with all the grave consequences this entailed for the country’s ailing economy and stability if Aoun and Hariri refused to budge from their conflicting positions on a new government.

Despite the collapse of his mediation bid last month to facilitate the Cabinet formation, Rai Sunday called on Aoun to arrange a “reconciliation meeting” with Hariri to agree on the formation of a "salvation Cabinet" to tackle the country's crises.

“The government formation has been stalled. The judiciary is a victim of political and sectarian intervention. The economy is paralyzed in all its sectors. Half of the city of Beirut is destroyed and its residents are afflicted. Half of the Lebanese people are in a state of poverty. The door leading to the road of a solution is the formation of a salvation Cabinet made up of Lebanese elites, personalities who succeeded and excelled in Lebanon and the world,” Rai said in his Sunday’s sermon at his seat in Bkirki.

The patriarch said he personally sought last month to facilitate the Cabinet formation when he called on Aoun and Hariri to hold a “personal reconciliation meeting” to restore confidence between them.

"The tragic state of the country and the people [cannot tolerate] any delay in the government formation. In this situation, we wish that his excellency the president will take the initiative and invite the prime minister-designate to this [reconciliation] meeting,” Rai said.

It was not immediately known whether Aoun would accept Rai’s call and invite Hariri for a reconciliation meeting to agree on the swift formation of a new government.

A source at Baabda Palace said Aoun’s position would be known after Hariri’s return from a foreign trip. “I don’t know what the president’s position [on Rai’s call] will be. We will see when Prime Minister Hariri returns to Lebanon,” the source told The Daily Star Sunday.

Hariri is currently in the United Arab Emirates after visiting Turkey last week amid reports he will also visit Egypt and France as part of an Arab and foreign trip.

“Prime Minister Hariri will make several foreign visits to restore Lebanon’s relations with Arab and foreign countries,” a source close to Hariri told The Daily Star Sunday.

Asked whether Hariri would accept Rai’s call for a reconciliation meeting with Aoun, Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star: “Prime Minister Hariri has never been an obstacle to a serious work aimed at halting the country’s disruption. Prime Minister Hariri rejects disruption of the economy and the people’s lives that is caused by [Aoun’s] mandate and its team. Therefore, he [Hariri] realizes that the aim of the leaked video was to consolidate the full obstruction of the government [formation].”

Without saying flatly whether Hariri was ready to reconcile with the president after the video episode, Hajjar said if Aoun and his team admitted the “enormous mistakes” they committed against the country by obstructing the government formation, “we will act accordingly.”

Rai’s renewed call for a reconciliation meeting between Aoun and Hariri comes after a French initiative, designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the Civil War, presented to rival Lebanese political leaders by French President Emmanuel Macron during his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1, has hit snags. Lebanese factions failed to agree on the swift formation of a “mission government” to carry out a slew of economic and administrative reforms.

Since his designation on Oct. 22, Hariri has been striving to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan experts to implement reforms urgently needed to unlock billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.

But his attempts have foundered over a dispute with Aoun regarding who gets to name the Christian ministers and who controls two key ministries: Interior and Justice, and demands by Aoun’s son-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Gebran Bassil, for veto power and representing political parties in the government. In addition to refusing to grant veto power to any party in the next government, Hariri is reportedly also opposed to allotting the Interior and Justice ministries to Aoun and the FPM.

Future officials have said Hariri would not bow to pressure from Aoun and Bassil aimed at forcing him to step down or meet their conditions for the Cabinet formation.

The Cabinet impasse comes as Lebanon continues to wrestle with an acute financial crisis that has seen the currency plummet by more than 80 percent since 2019 while the health care system is buckling under the pressure of a severe spike in COVID-19 infections.





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