BEIRUT: France Tuesday urged Lebanon’s leaders to move forward with implementing key reforms as an essential step toward unlocking promised international aid to the crises and debt-ridden nation.
The plea was made by French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo during her meetings with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, an official source said. It came a few days after a new Cabinet was unveiled by Mikati, ending 13 months of political deadlock that aggravated the worst economic and financial crisis in the country’s history.
Grillo visited Berri, Mikati and Bassil mainly to thank them for their roles in facilitating the formation of a new government, the source said.
“Grillo’s tour is linked to the French role played by President Emmanuel Macron in facilitating the government formation. It is no secret that Macron followed up either directly or indirectly through his aides on the difficulties and obstacles that encountered the government formation. There was a clear French effort that facilitated the formation,” the source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.
The source cited the phone conversation between Macron and Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi during which the two leaders agreed on supporting the formation of a new government in Lebanon.
According to the source, Grillo asked the three leaders to cooperate and facilitate the new government’s task in implementing reforms, while highlighting Parliament’s role in approving the required reforms to release foreign aid to the cash-strapped country.
“The French are concerned to see some reforms enacted during a short period,” the source said.
Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since last year’s massive Beirut Port explosion, was the first foreign leader last Friday to welcome the formation of a new government in Lebanon, stressing that it was vital that Lebanese politicians stick to engagements necessary to undertake key reforms.
In welcoming the new government, the United States, France and the European Union have urged it to undertake reforms quickly, with Washington calling on Mikati to address the "dire needs and legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people." The EU Sunday urged Lebanon's new government to move quickly to adopt reforms that would pave the way for a deal with the International Monetary Fund to halt the country's economic collapse.
After his designation on July 26 to form a government, Mikati promised to implement a slew of reforms contained in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its crippling economic and financial crunch, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.
The initiative called for the formation of a “mission” government made up of nonpartisan specialists to enact essential reforms, including overhauling the ailing electricity sector and conducting a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts. The stalled French initiative was endorsed by Lebanon’s rival political leaders during Macron’s second visit to Beirut Sept. 1 last year.
Addressing the first Cabinet meeting he chaired at Baabda Palace Monday, President Michel Aoun called for the launch of a quick workshop to put Lebanon on the road to salvation and economic recovery. He called on the government to act decisively on reforms. Aoun also underlined Lebanon’s need for assistance from the IMF, the World Bank and donor agencies to help it out of its economic depression.
Lebanon began talks with the IMF 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 at the Central Bank.
The new government faces a host of daunting challenges that begin with halting the country’s economic collapse, embarking on essential reforms, resolving the severe food, fuel and medicine shortages and chronic power cuts and end with supervising next year’s parliamentary elections. This is in addition to restoring confidence between the people and the state and also with the international community, which has linked its financial aid to implementing structural reforms.
Meanwhile, Mikati Tuesday chaired a second meeting of a ministerial committee tasked with drafting the new government’s policy statement amid signs that the committee was determined to finish the document this week before presenting it Parliament next week to seek a vote of confidence from MPs.
The committee, which met at Mikati’s office at the Grand Serail, continued discussion of the ministers' observations on a draft policy statement, said a statement released by Mikati's media office. The committee will meet again Wednesday.
Once it is finalized by the committee, the draft policy statement will be discussed and approved by the Cabinet before presenting it to Parliament to seek a confidence vote.
Headed by Mikati, the 12-member committee, which was formed during the first Cabinet meeting Monday, includes the deputy premier and ministers of justice, interior, energy, finance, social affairs, information, culture, labor, agriculture, administrative development affairs and the displaced.
Speaking to reporters after the committee’s meeting, Agriculture Minister Abbas Haj Hasan said provisions related to bread, electricity and the people’s needs would be highlighted in the policy statement.
“What is required is to restore confidence between citizens and the state,” he said. “The policy statement will address the people’s pains, the electricity problem, [fuel] subsidies and all that the people have demanded in the street,” he added.
Another committee member, Labor Minister Mustapha Bayram, one of two Hezbollah ministers in the 24-member Cabinet, said: “The policy statement will contain provisions that will reassure the people. [Banks’] deposits will be preserved, wages will be rectified and our rights and wealth will be safeguarded.”
After taking over as new foreign minister from acting Foreign Minister Zeina Akar, Abdullah Bou Habib said: “The circumstances are difficult but not impossible. They stem from the internal policy which affects the foreign policy.”
Underlining the importance of Lebanon’s relations with foreign countries, Bou Habib said: “Among the government’s priorities is internal stability and relations with the outside [world]. We will seek to strengthen our relations with the Arab world. We are part of it and we can neither abandon the Arab world, nor the Western world.”
On his second day at the Grand Serail, Mikati met Tuesday with Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh to discuss, among other things, the Central Bank’s plan to totally lift fuel subsidies by the end of this month amid severe gasoline and diesel shortages that have left hundreds of gas stations shuttered and thousands of motorists queuing to fill up their vehicles at operating stations.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah welcomed the formation of a new government in this “difficult stage in Lebanon’s history.” He called on the government to implement reforms and rescue the country.
“We are looking forward to a government that will rescue [the country], carry out reforms and give priority to alleviating the people’s suffering because the country is in the heart of collapse,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech Monday night.
He said Hezbollah supported preparations for parliamentary and municipal elections to be held on time.
Calling on Parliament to quickly grant confidence to the government “because time is running short,” Nasrallah said: “The government must undertake a set of reform steps. All of us are required to show solidarity in order to relieve the people and give the government the needed time to make achievements.”