BEIRUT: While Lebanon appeared Wednesday to be edging rapidly toward a total economic collapse as a result of the Lebanese pound’s unchecked plunge, local pressure mounted on top leaders to meet and reach a compromise to speed up the formation of a new government seen crucial to halting the country’s free-fall toward the abyss.
The latest calls on President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to meet and resolve their differences over the formation of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact essential reforms were made separately by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt and in a statement issued after a meeting of the Amal Movement’s leadership body chaired by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
The local calls come on top of renewed appeals made by the international community last week to Lebanese political adversaries to facilitate the formation of a new government to implement reforms aimed at averting a total economic collapse and a much-feared social implosion.
The international appeals have so far failed to nudge Aoun and Hariri into softening their conflicting positions on the shape and size of a new government to deliver reforms stipulated in the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and 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 deadlock, now in its seven month, comes as Lebanon is wrestling with its worst economic meltdown in decades as seen in the crashing pound, which hit an all-time low record Tuesday, trading for over LL15,000 against the dollar on the black market. Meanwhile, the ailing economy teeters on the verge of total collapse as rival political leaders struggle to resolve a political crisis that has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than seven months.
The pound, which has already lost more than 90 percent of its value since 2019, has led to prices of foodstuffs and other basic items skyrocketing and driven half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.
The plummeting currency has triggered a wave of nationwide street protests with outraged residents, for the second week in a row, blocking main roads in parts of Beirut and other cities, including the main highway to the south, main roads in east and north of the country with burning tires and garbage containers.
In the latest public agitation, angry residents Wednesday briefly attempted to storm the Economy Ministry in central Beirut to protest skyrocketing prices of basic goods, but they were pushed back by security forces.
Joumblatt called on Aoun and Hariri, who have not met for more than a month, to get together and reach a compromise to break the Cabinet deadlock, stressing that nothing can stop the economic deterioration except the formation of a new government soon.
“There is no solution except through a compromise. This compromise is essential in order to deal with the main problem today: The collapse of the Lebanese pound,” Joumblatt said in an interview with the PSP’s online newspaper Al-Anbaa released Wednesday. “President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri must meet together and the meeting needs a compromise. So let the compromise be achieved. History will not have mercy on anyone if we do not achieve a compromise. Politics is the art of the possible rather than the art of the impossible.”
The PSP leader’s remarks came two days after he held talks with Hariri on the hurdles blocking the formation of a new government.
“We have very difficult days ahead, more difficult than we have been through before. We must display calm and respect the opinion of the other side. A compromise is essential,” Joumblatt said, calling on Aoun, Hariri, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea to exert efforts toward achieving a Cabinet compromise.
“There is nothing that can stop the deterioration except the formation of a government as soon as possible. In the face of the situation that is deteriorating at every minute, I advise political leaders on the need for a compromise and not to set conditions and counter-conditions and to abandon the blocking third [veto power], after all the entire country is paralyzed,” Joumblatt said. “Therefore, there should be an affective government to take necessary measures, on top of them is to rationalize subsidies and stop subsidizing gasoline which is smuggled to Syria and stop subsidizing medicine, most of which goes to Iraq.”
He emphasized that priority now is how to confront the “economic collapse and draw up a program to fight starvation.”
“Because starvation is snowballing, the only way to fight starvation is through a government,” he said.
While reiterating his support for the French initiative that called for the rapid formation of a “mission” government to implement a string of economic and administrative reforms badly needed to unlock billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country, Joumblatt said: “We must not count on any state to come to our assistance. We must help ourselves by ourselves.”
Joumblatt called on the government to renew negotiations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on a bailout program to rescue the battered economy, warning of “tougher conditions” by these institutions if the talks were further delayed.
Lebanon began talks with the International Monetary Fund on a $10 billion bailout package in May 2020, but the negotiations have been stalled by a dispute between different interest groups representing Lebanese banks and the government over the size of losses in the Central Bank.
Asked to comment on Joumblatt’s call on Aoun and Hariri to reach a compromise over the Cabinet crisis, a source close to the premier-designate told The Daily Star: “We have nothing to say on this. The Cabinet lineup has been with President Aoun for months and is awaiting his signature. The contacts [on the Cabinet formation] are hitting snags over insistence on the blocking third [veto power].”
The Amal Movement’s leadership body called for the formation of a new government in line with the French initiative in which no party would be granted veto power.
“The Amal Movement calls on the Lebanese in general, and the official leaders of various positions in particular, to immediately shoulder their responsibilities and adopt an historic stance to save Lebanon and prevent its collapse and God forbid, its extinction,” said a statement issued after a meeting of Amal’s presidential body chaired by Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence.
Calling on all feuding parties to make sacrifices for sake of Lebanon, the statement said: “What is required today is the formation of a government in which all ‘thirds’ are for Lebanon without any a blocking third or fourth in it.” It was referring to Hariri’s proposed 18-member Cabinet which has three thirds.
“What is required is a government that will restore confidence of the Lebanese and the world’s confidence in Lebanon as a state of institutions and law. A government as stipulated in the French initiative is the gateway to safeguarding Lebanon as a nation,” the statement said.
The statement made no mention of Berri’s latest proposal, which reportedly called for the formation of a 20-member Cabinet in which no party would be granted veto power, with the Interior Ministry 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 Joumblatt and his Druze rival, MP Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, an ally of the FPM.
Arslan met Wednesday with Aoun and Berri, discussing the stalled Cabinet formation process.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah is set to touch on latest developments in Lebanon and the region, including the Cabinet crisis, in a televised speech at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.