BEIRUT: The Future Movement Monday renewed its support for the Baabda Declaration, but fell short of backing Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai’s calls for an international conference to save Lebanon and for declaring its neutrality, in a move reflecting inter-Lebanese divisions over Rai’s proposals.
The Future Movement’s stance came after a meeting with Rai as the patriarch appeared to be resolute on forging ahead with his controversial calls for declaring Lebanon’s “neutrality” and for a UN-sponsored international conference to resolve the country’s crippling political and economic crises, overriding staunch opposition from Hezbollah and its allies and the top Shiite religious authority.
Lacking inter-Lebanese consensus, Rai’s calls, which came after rival political leaders had failed to agree on solutions to the country’s long-simmering political, economic and social problems and the formation of a new government, threatened to deepen divisions in the already-split country reeling from multiple crises, including unprecedented economic meltdown and a collapsing currency.
The split over Rai’s calls also cast gloom on the stalled Cabinet formation process, fueling fears the patriarch’s proposal might further complicate the crisis, which Monday entered its seventh month with no solution in sight.
Observers were split on whether Rai’s calls would further delay or accelerate the formation of a new government badly needed to enact essential reforms outlined in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch in decades.
On instructions from Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, a Future parliamentary bloc headed by MP Bahia Hariri, met Monday with Rai as part of its calls on spiritual leaders to brief them on Hariri’s ongoing contacts to form a new government and the obstacles he was facing. The bloc had already met with Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian at Dar al-Fatwa.
“In the beginning, we voiced support for the initiatives and strenuous efforts undertaken by the patriarch to find a solution to the political crisis with a view to reaching the formation of a government,” Future MP Samir Jisr told reporters after the meeting with Rai at the latter’s seat in Bkirki, northeast of Beirut. He was referring to Rai’s failed mediation efforts to resolve differences between President Michel Aoun and Hariri over the formation of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms contained in the French initiative.
Without mentioning Rai’s calls for Lebanon’s neutrality and an international conference, Jisr said: “We renewed to the patriarch our full support for the Baabda Declaration which in particular calls for distancing Lebanon from the policy of regional and international axes and struggles and sparing it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises in order to protect its supreme interest, national unity and civil peace.”
He added that Lebanon was still committed to the “decisions of international legitimacy, Arab unanimity and the rightful Palestinian cause, including the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands and homes and without resettling them [in Lebanon].”
The Baabda Declaration, signed by rival March 8 and March 14 leaders during a National Dialogue session chaired by President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace in June 2012, calls for “keeping Lebanon away from regional and international conflicts and sparing it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises,” particularly the war in Syria. The declaration had been adopted by the United Nations and the Arab League.
Hezbollah and its allies have since criticized the declaration. MP Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, had said the declaration was “stillborn” after the Iranian-backed Shiite party joined in the war in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Jisr said the Future delegation briefed Rai on Hariri’s ongoing efforts to speed up the formation of a new government. “We also informed the patriarch of the results of Prime Minister Hariri’s external contacts aimed at creating a favorable climate to support Lebanon’s recovery after the government formation,” he said.
Hariri has in recent weeks held talks with the leaders of Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and France aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states.
The Future delegation assured Rai that Hariri is determined to form a mission government made up of nonpartisan specialists known for their competence and success in their career lives, Jisr said.
“We stressed to the patriarch that the prime minister-designate is committed to implementing the Constitution and the Taif Accord in letter and spirit, particularly the Constitution’s provision on preserving the rights of the Lebanese, Christians and Muslims alike,” he added.
Asked about the obstacles hindering the government formation, Jisr said: “In the issue of the government formation, we will not lose hope. This problem will have to be solved.”
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. Hariri has firmly rejected demands by Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, for veto power in the new government.
Future Movement officials have said Hariri have also rejected a proposal, made by Bassil last month, 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 formation of a new government is desperately needed to carry out a slew of economic and administrative reforms deemed essential to unlocking billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.
So far, neither Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri nor the Amal Movement has commented on Rai’s calls for Lebanon’s neutrality and an international conference.
The Amal Movement’s politburo made no mention of Rai’s calls in its weekly meeting Monday. In a statement after the meeting, Amal’s politburo reiterated its call for the swift formation of a new government to halt the country’s economic collapse.
Amid deep political divisions among rival factions on Rai’s calls, 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.
The FPM, which did not participate in the Bkirki rally, stressed that neutrality required an inter-Lebanese accord.
Hezbollah has rejected Rai’s calls for Lebanon’s neutrality and for an international conference, saying internationalization posed “a danger to Lebanon.”
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.