Mediators fail to thaw Aoun-Hariri diplomatic freeze to solve Lebanon's cabinet crisis

Prime Minister Hassan Diab was the latest mediator to enter the government formation fray by meeting with President Michel Aoun and PM-designate Saad Hariri as part of a personal initiative aimed at achieving a breakthrough

  
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri attend a cabinet session at the Baabda palace, Lebanon October 21, 2019.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri attend a cabinet session at the Baabda palace, Lebanon October 21, 2019.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: Attempts by mediators, including caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, to arrange an ice-breaking meeting between the president and the prime minister-designate to resolve their differences over the formation of a new government, have so far failed to yield any positive results, political sources said Thursday.

This has raised fears of a prolonged Cabinet deadlock, now in its sixth month, with all the grave consequences it carries for the country that is facing multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 80 percent of its value since 2019.

“There is nothing new with regard to the Cabinet formation crisis. Prime Minister Diab’s initiative has not yet been crystallized. General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s shuttle diplomacy is still in its prime. And there is nothing new regarding Bkirki’s mediation efforts,” a political source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star.

“All these developments indicate there is no imminent breakthrough in the Cabinet crisis,” the source said.

Diab was the latest mediator to enter the government formation fray by meeting Tuesday with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri as part of a personal initiative aimed at achieving a breakthrough in the Cabinet impasse by clearing the way for an ice-breaking meeting between the two leaders following rising tensions over a leaked video that have brought the already-stalled government formation process back to square one.

Diab, who had also met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri as part of his effort, announced after his talks with Aoun that the president and the premier-designate would meet soon to explore an appropriate solution for the formation of a new government as soon as possible.

Ibrahim, the General Security chief who had previously mediated in political disputes between the president and the prime minister, was reported to have visited Aoun and Hariri in a bid to narrow their differences over a proposed 18-member Cabinet made up of nonpartisan specialists to be tasked with enacting essential reforms badly needed to secure the release of billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the brink of a total economic collapse. The reforms are stipulated in a French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Also, Aoun has not yet responded to Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai’s call on him to invite Hariri for a “reconciliation” meeting to agree on the swift formation of a “salvation Cabinet” to tackle the country’s crises. This has raised doubts on whether Aoun was ready for a “reconciliation” meeting with Hariri.

Rai’s call, made in his Sunday’s sermon in Bkirki was the second in less than month by the Maronite patriarch who is trying to patch up the rift between the president and the premier-designate over the Cabinet formation.

Although he has not yet responded to Rai’s call, Aoun Thursday sent his political adviser, former Minister Salim Jreissati, to Bkirki where he met with the Maronite patriarch. “The meeting was part of the patriarch’s continued efforts to accelerate the formation of a new government,” the state-run National News Agency reported.

Rai’s call on Aoun to arrange a “reconciliation meeting” with Hariri came days after long-brewing tensions between the president and the premier-designate, who last month publicly traded accusations of responsibility for obstructing the government formation, came to a head on Jan. 11 when Aoun was seen in a leaked video calling Hariri a liar.

Aoun’s accusation has exacerbated the impasse in the Cabinet formation process, already stalled by a disagreement between the president and the premier-designate over the distribution of key ministries. The video episode has deepened a crisis of confidence between the two leaders and heightened political tensions in the crises-ridden country.

Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the massive explosion that devastated Beirut Port, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.

MTV channel, quoting sources close to Baabda Palace, said Aoun would not “apologize” to Hariri over the leaked video. Aoun also refuses that a certain political party, a reference to Hariri, controls security-related ministries, namely the Interior and Justice ministries, it said.

Asked to comment on the MTV report, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Thursday: “In the issue of the Interior and Justice ministries, the president does not accept that one party controls two ministries linked to security and justice.”

While the French initiative to rescue Lebanon remained deadlocked after rival Lebanese leaders failed to agree on the swift formation of a “mission government” to implement reforms stipulated in the initiative, Berri is coming under pressure to intervene to help break the deadlock.

Berri was quoted by visitors as saying he was waiting for tensions between Aoun and Hariri to ease before intervening.

Asked why he doesn’t intervene in the rift between Aoun and Hariri, Berri told An-Nahar newspaper Thursday: “I will not intervene before there is a light.”

Hezbollah Thursday reiterated its call for the rapid formation of a new government to deal with the country’s crises, aggravated by a frightening surge in coronavirus infections and deaths and the grave consequences of the deadly Aug. 4 explosion that pulverized Beirut’s port, damaged half of the capital, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused billions of dollars in material damage.

“Although nearly three months have passed since Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been designated to form a new government in Lebanon and whether the natural deadline for formation has been exceeded or not .... the crisis-hit situation in the country requires exceptional moves to set the government motion into motion so that the executive authority can begin administering the nation’s and citizens’ affairs,” said a statement issued after the weekly meeting of Hezbollah’s parliamentary Loyalty to the Resistance bloc chaired by MP Mohammad Raad.

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