BEIRUT: Amid spiraling tensions between top Lebanese leaders as reflected in a renewed war of words over responsibility for obstructing the government formation, hopes are pinned on a fresh intervention by French President Emmanuel Macron to break the deadlock.
“With the failure of local mediation efforts, President Macron’s planned visit to Lebanon has raised a new hope for resolving the Cabinet formation crisis. Without the formation of a mission government to enact reforms stipulated in the French initiative, there is nothing to rescue Lebanon and halt its freefall into the abyss,” a political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star Sunday.
The source said Macron’s promised visit “clearly underscored the French leader’s commitment to help Lebanon emerge from its worst crisis since the [1975-90] Civil War.”
In fact, Macron, during a telephone conversation with President Michel Aoun Saturday, reaffirmed France’s support for Lebanon and hinted at a French role in helping the formation of a new government.
Macron reassured Aoun that France would “stand by Lebanon’s side in these difficult circumstances through which it is passing and help it in various fields, especially with regards to the government [formation] file,” a statement from Aoun’s media office said.
The statement said Aoun received a phone call from Macron during which they “discussed the current situation and where the formation of a new government stood.”
While welcoming Macron’s decision to visit Lebanon again, Aoun praised the French presidential initiative pertaining to the government formation.
Macron’s phone call to Aoun came a day after he 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.
Macron’s visit will be the third to Lebanon since the deadly Aug. 4 explosion that devastated Beirut Port. He was originally set to travel to Lebanon in December but postponed the trip after contracting COVID-19.
The visit is designed to revive the stalled French initiative to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 80 percent its value since 2019, and subsequently put half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.
Macron’s announcement came amid a new war of words between Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri that has heightened political tensions in the country and brought the already-stalled Cabinet formation process back to square one.
In a statement issued by his media office Friday, Hariri accused Aoun of transforming their rift over the Cabinet formation into “a sectarian clash.”
He also stood firm on his proposal to form an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms, strongly rejecting Aoun’s reported call for a 20-member Cabinet to add two ministerial seats: one for the Druze sect and the other for the Melkite Greek Catholic sect.
Hariri was responding to comments attributed to Aoun and published in Al-Akhbar newspaper Friday in which the president was quoted as saying that the premier-designate was not cooperating with him on the Cabinet formation.
“Hariri wants an 18-member Cabinet as planned by him. But from now on, we will only talk about a Cabinet of 20 ministers, by adding two ministers, a Druze and a Greek Catholic,” Aoun was quoted as saying.
Responding to Aoun’s demand, Hariri said: “To sum it up, there will be only a Cabinet of 18 ministers. Full stop.”
Hariri has previously accused Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, of seeking a 20-member Cabinet with the aim of acquiring veto power in the government, or seven ministers, one-third plus one. Hariri has vowed to neither grant veto power to any party nor to include representatives of political parties in the next government.
In a further reflection of the Aoun-Hariri tensions, the FPM and the Future Movement Saturday engaged in mud-slinging over responsibility for the Cabinet crisis that has left the country without fully functioning government for nearly six months since then-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.
The FPM said this week’s violent clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between security forces and residents protesting the deteriorating economic conditions that left one man dead and more than 500 others injured should push Hariri to speed up the formation of a government in “full agreement and partnership with the president based on a reformist program to convince the concerned states, on top of them France, to extend aid [to Lebanon].”
“National consideration requires that the prime minister-designate go immediately to the presidential palace and stop accusing others of what he is suffering from: local and regional political impasses,” said a statement released by the FMP’s political committee after an electronic meeting chaired by Bassil.
The FPM’s statement drew a fiery response from the Future Movement, which accused Aoun’s presidency of obstructing the government formation and attempting to turn against the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Civil War.
“Regarding the call on the premier-designate to immediately go to the presidential palace, it would have been more useful for the Free Patriotic Movement to ask its former head, the president of the republic, why doesn’t he sign the Cabinet lineup that has been on his office for more than 50 days instead of holding it?” said a statement issued by the Future Movement’s media affairs body. “We are in the era of [Aoun’s] mandate that is very strong in disruption and obstruction and climbing over the [Christian] sect’s rights to turn against the Taif Accord.”
Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai Sunday warned that Lebanon would not have a new government if the strained relationship between Aoun and Hariri was not fixed.
“It is really sad and disgraceful for the unjustified disagreement in implementing Article 53/4 in the Constitution to be a cause for straining the relationship between the president and the premier-designate to the extent that they talk to each other through media offices and loyal parties,” Rai said in his Sunday sermon in Bkirki. “Therefore, if the relationship between the two is not mended, we will not have a government. They are governed to agree on the formation of a ‘national mission’ government that includes extraordinary specialist elites,” he added.