BEIRUT: The international community Thursday reiterated its urgent appeal to Lebanon’s rival leaders to agree on the swift formation of a “fully empowered” government capable of implementing reforms to fix the crumbling economy and rescue the Lebanese from multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial meltdown.
The new appeal came in a statement issued by the International Support Group for Lebanon after its meeting in Beirut Thursday to take stock of the situation in the country, more than seven months after the massive Aug. 4 explosion that devastated Beirut Port, damaged half of the capital, killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused billions of dollars in material damage.
In the meantime, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian Thursday rebuked Lebanese politicians, saying time was running out to prevent Lebanon's collapse and that he could see no sign that those politicians were doing what they could to save it.
"I would be tempted to qualify Lebanese politicians as guilty of not helping a country in danger," Le Drian told a news conference in Paris.
"They all committed to act to create an inclusive government and committed to implementing indispensable reforms. That was seven months ago and nothing is moving. I think it's not too late, but the delays are very small before collapse,” he added.
Le Drian was referring to a French road map agreed by Lebanon’s political leaders at a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron during his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1. The French blueprint called for the rapid formation of a “mission” government to enact urgent 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.
"It's up to the Lebanese authorities to take their destiny in hand knowing that the international community is looking with concern," Le Drian said. "There is still time to act today, but tomorrow will be too late."
The ISGL statement and Le Drian’s remarks came as Lebanon is in the grips of its worst economic and political crisis threatening its stability for the first time since the 1975-90 Civil War.
A deepening rift between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri over the size and shape of the new Cabinet has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than six months since 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.
Referring to the Cabinet deadlock, the ISGL “recalled with consternation that seven months have elapsed since the resignation of the last government, inhibiting Lebanon’s ability to address its deepening and increasingly complex political, social, financial, economic and institutional challenges, and to meet the legitimate needs and aspirations of the Lebanese people.”
“The Group reiterated its urgent call for Lebanon’s leaders to delay no longer the formation of a fully empowered government capable of meeting the country’s urgent needs and implementing critical reforms,” the statement said, adding: “The Group reiterated its firm and continuing support for Lebanon and its people.”
The ISGL noted the precipitating socio-economic crisis in Lebanon, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Referring to nationwide street protests that engulfed the country, including the closure of main roads and highways with burning tires against the deteriorating economic and living conditions, the ISGL expressed its concern at the rising tensions in the country, including the recent protests.
Calling for demonstrations to remain peaceful, for human rights to be protected, the ISGL further called for “full accountability and justice to be served, through credible, transparent and swift investigations of the Beirut port explosion and the killing of Mr. Lokman Slim.” Slim, a prominent Lebanese publisher and vocal critic of Hezbollah, was found shot dead in his car in south Lebanon on Feb. 4. Investigations into the killing are ongoing.
The ISGL has brought together the United Nations and the governments of China, France, Germany, Italy, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, together with the European Union and the Arab League.? It was launched in September 2013 by the UN secretary-general with former President Michel Sleiman to help mobilize support and assistance for Lebanon’s stability, sovereignty and state institutions.
The street protests, which began last week, were triggered by a rapid and dramatic collapse of the Lebanese pound against the dollar, which traded at nearly 11,000 on the black market over the weekend for the first time in its history. The crashing pound has lost more than 85 percent its value since 2019, and subsequently put half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.
Eight days of nationwide street protests against the worsening economic conditions have so far failed to revive talks between Aoun and Hariri on the Cabinet crisis or nudge them into softening their conflicting positions on key ministerial seats, namely the Justice and Interior ministries, and the naming of Christian ministers.
“Prime Minister Saad Hariri will not go to Baabda Palace unless there is something new, or a change in President Aoun’s position,” Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star Thursday.
He said Hariri asked Aoun during their last meeting last month whether he had any remarks on the draft Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists he presented to the president on Dec. 9 concerning names of ministers or distribution of portfolios.
Asked whether General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s initiative would help break the Cabinet stalemate, Hajjar said: “Things [in the Cabinet crisis] are still the same and nothing has changed. We are hearing and reading about an initiative, but we have not been officially notified of it.”
He said Hariri was still adamant on his position since he resigned on Oct. 29, 2019, in the wake of a nationwide popular uprising against the ruling political elite that he would only accept to head a government of nonpartisan specialists, as stipulated in the French initiative, to halt the country’s economic collapse.
“Now, the whole world is supporting the [Cabinet formation] criteria contained in the French initiative, while the Russians are calling for the formation of a mission and capable government made up of technocrats,” Hajjar said.
“The only one rejecting this government is the Aoun-Gebran Bassil team, which is searching for quotas in political or techno-political governments,” he added.
Hajjar stressed that any government in which any party was granted a blocking third, or veto power, would be detrimental to the country’s interest and would not help restore the international community’s confidence in Lebanon.
Hariri, who met in Abu Dhabi Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, gained Russia’s support for his drive to form a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists and his refusal to include representatives of political parties in the new government, according to a statement issued after the meeting by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
As part of his ongoing mediation efforts to narrow differences between Aoun and Hariri over the Cabinet formation, Ibrahim was expected to meet with the premier-designate to sound out his views on a proposal that calls for the formation of a “mission government” made up of 18 non-political specialists and not based on quotas among rival factions as had happened in previous governments.
The proposal would allow Aoun to name five ministers, in addition to the Armenian Tashnag party’s minister in the proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists
Ibrahim’s proposal effectively denies any party veto power, one of major hurdles that have hindered the government formation since Hariri was designated on Oct. 22 to set up a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan experts to enact reforms contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon.
The outcome of Ibrahim’s meeting with Hariri was seen crucial with regard to the success of the proposal to resolve the Cabinet crisis.
Ibrahim has already met with Aoun and Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai to rally their support for this proposal. The General Security chief has been shuttling between Aoun, Hariri, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Rai as part of his mediation bid. Berri was reported to have voiced support for Ibrahim’s proposal.
An official source told The Daily Star Wednesday that Ibrahim’s proposal was the “most serious initiative to resolve the Cabinet crisis.”