BEIRUT: Lebanon sank deeper into economic collapse and chaos over the weekend amid the pound’s free fall against the US dollar with all the grave consequences this entails for the country’s crumbling economy and the lives of the Lebanese who are threatened with poverty as a result of an unprecedented financial downturn.
Worse still, new appeals issued this week by the international community, namely the United States, France and Russia, to Lebanon’s rival leaders to agree on the swift formation of a new government to implement essential reforms aimed at averting a total economic collapse and a much-feared social implosion appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.
The international appeals, coupled with serious warnings that Lebanon was running out of time before a total collapse, as well as nationwide street protests against the deteriorating economic conditions, have so far failed to revive talks between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri on the Cabinet crisis and push them into softening their conflicting positions on the shape and size of a new government to enact reforms stipulated in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War. The two leaders remain at odds over the distribution of key ministerial seats, namely the Justice and Interior ministries, and the naming of Christian ministers.
“The Cabinet formation process has been put on hold. There are no contacts, neither from Baabda Palace [with Hariri], nor from Hariri [with Aoun]. Therefore, the Cabinet deadlock persists,” an official source familiar with the process told The Daily Star Sunday.
The source said General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim has “suspended” his mediation efforts to narrow differences between Aoun and Hariri over the Cabinet formation apparently to clear the way for a new initiative by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
According to the source, resumption of contacts between Baabda Palace and Saudi Ambassador Walid Bukhari, whose country wields great influence in the country, might help in the ongoing moves to break the Cabinet formation stalemate, now in its seventh month. “Contacts between Baabda [Palace] and the Saudi ambassador have begun,” the source said, referring to Bukhari’s meeting this week with former Minister Salim Jreissati, a political adviser to Aoun.
Since his return to Beirut last month after a long absence, Bukhari has been meeting with top Lebanese political and religious leaders, discussing ways of helping Lebanon overcome its deepening economic and political crisis. Saudi Arabia was reported to have opposed Hezbollah’s participation in the new government, posing a major snag to the formation.
After meeting with Aoun and Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai as part of his mediation bid, Ibrahim was expected to meet with Hariri to brief him on a proposal that calls for the formation of a “mission government” made up of 18 nonpolitical 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 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists planned by Hariri.
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 implement reforms contained in the French initiative.
But Ibrahim’s meeting with Hariri did not materialize, apparently reflecting difficulties in implementing it.
“Prime Minister Hariri has not met with Maj. Gen. Ibrahim for two weeks,” a source close the premier-designate told The Daily Star Sunday.
The source refused to say whether Hariri had rejected Berri’s initiative to resolve the Cabinet crisis. “Concerning Berri’s initiative, Ali Hasan Khalil has announced that the problem still stemmed from the blocking third [veto power] demand, meaning with President Aoun,” the source said.
MP Ali Hasan Khalil, a top political aide to Berri, who met with Hariri this week reportedly to promote Berri’s proposal, blamed the two sides, the president and the premier-designate, for blocking the government formation.
Taking an indirect jab at Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, for insisting on veto power in the next government, Khalil, a former finance minister, said a demand for veto power still posed a major hurdle to the formation.
“We are still marking time. There was an activity in the past few days to search for a common ground aimed at reaching a solution and compromise [to the Cabinet crisis]. But we are still stuck with the blocking third [veto power] problem which, in our view, amounts to a suicide and assassination of the nation,” Khalil told a general meeting of municipal councils organized by the Amal Movement in the southern city of Tyre Saturday.
“Some are still sticking to their conditions to acquire a specific share in the government formation,” he added, clearly referring to Bassil, who has been accused by Hariri and Future Movement officials of blocking the government formation with his tough conditions, including veto power.
Khalil disclosed that Berri had in the past few days made a series of contacts aimed at breaking the Cabinet deadlock. “But unfortunately, the parties concerned with resolving the [Cabinet] crisis still stood firm on their opinions, which will lead to obstructing and delaying a solution,” he said, alluding to Aoun and Hariri.
Berri’s proposal reportedly called for the formation of a 20-member Cabinet in which no party would be granted veto power, with the Interior Ministry would be part of Hariri’s share and the Justice Ministry part of Aoun’s share. The name of the second Druze minister would be chosen in agreement between Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt and his Druze rival, MP Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, an ally of the FPM.
Arslan Saturday met with Joumblatt at the latter’s residence in Beirut, discussing among other things, issues related to the Druze sect, or the Druze representation in the new government. Arslan has demanded that his party be represented in the government.
Since his designation last year to form a new government, Hariri has insisted on setting up an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms stipulated in the French initiative. He has vowed not to grant veto power to any party in the government. Future Movement officials have said Hariri rejected a proposal, made by Bassil last month, for raising the proposed 18-member Cabinet 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 Cabinet deadlock comes amid an unprecedented economic meltdown that is hitting the Lebanese hard. The Lebanese pound hit a record low in value Saturday, trading for as high as LL12,400 against the dollar on the black market for the first time in its history, further slashing the purchasing power of the people and sending prices of foodstuffs and other basic items skyrocketing even more. The crashing pound has lost more than 85 percent its value since 2019, and subsequently driven half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.
The unchecked rise in the dollar exchange rate on the black market has sparked a wave of nationwide street protests, including road closures in Beirut and other cities, by hundreds of angry residents demonstrating against the deteriorating economic conditions. Angry residents took to the streets Sunday in the southern city of Sidon, blocking roads in and around the coastal city with burning tires in protest against the collapsing pound.
Expressing its concern over the crippling economic crisis in Lebanon, the international community reiterated its urgent appeal to rival Lebanese leaders to agree on the swift formation of a “fully empowered” government capable of implementing “critical reforms.”