Political activity to be intensified in bid to break Lebanese Cabinet logjam

The energetic activity, which reportedly could see French President Emmanuel Macron meeting Gebran Bassil in Paris this week

  
Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri arrives to meet with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon March 22, 2021.

Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri arrives to meet with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon March 22, 2021.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: Political activity will be intensified this week in the latest bid to defuse the monthslong Cabinet crisis and accelerate the formation of a government of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms deemed vital to averting the country’s total economic collapse.

The energetic activity, which reportedly could see French President Emmanuel Macron meeting Gebran Bassil in Paris this week, comes amid a Saudi warning that Lebanon would face “dangerous circumstances” if its political leaders d onot adopt “true reforms.”

It also comes amid Hezbollah’s optimism about the government formation after two major hurdles -- the size of the Cabinet and the blocking one-third [veto power] demand made by President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement -- have been overcome.

The internal and external activity comes in tandem with an initiative planned by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri aimed at ending the gridlock that for nearly eight months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to cope with multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 90 percent of its value since October 2019, and subsequently driven half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.

An official source had told The Daily Star that Berri was seeking to enlist Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s support for a proposed 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power granted to any side before launching his initiative. Media reports said Aoun had agreed to Berri’s initiative, but this could not be confirmed by sources at Baabda Palace.

The most important of this activity is Bassil’s planned trip to Paris and his possible meeting with Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since last year’s massive Beirut Port explosion.

Media reports said that Macron, who presented a French reform road map in his meeting with Lebanese political leaders during his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1, 2020, would ask Bassil to facilitate the formation of a Cabinet of nonpartisan experts in line with the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Bassil, who heads the FPM’s Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest bloc in Parliament with the biggest Christian representation, has been accused by French officials, as well as by Hariri and Future Movement officials, of blocking the government formation with his tough conditions, including a demand for veto power.

General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, who returned last week from a visit to Paris, was reported Monday to be preparing for Bassil’s visit to France after he had managed to persuade French officials of the benefits of this visit.

Al-Jadeed TV reported that Bassil would leave for Paris Tuesday and his meeting with Macron would take place Wednesday. Quoting information circulated at the Elysee Palace, it said that Macron might arrange a meeting between Hariri and Bassil in order to overcome obstacles hindering the government formation. Hariri is currently on a private visit to the United Arab Emirates.

MP Alain Aoun from the FPM declined to comment on Bassil’s planned trip to Paris. “There is a positive activity to break the Cabinet deadlock,” Aoun told The Daily Star. He said France and the international community were pressing for the formation of a new government.

When asked about Bassil’s visit to Paris, LBCI channel quoted a source at the French Embassy in Beirut as saying: “We don’t comment on reports circulated on Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil’s visit to France.”

A member of Hezbollah’s 13-member parliamentary Loyalty to the Resistance bloc struck an upbeat note on the government formation, saying major obstacles had been eliminated and that the group was working with all parties to speed up the formation.

“There is optimism about the formation of the government. Major hurdles relating to the guaranteeing one-third [veto power] and [raising] the number of Cabinet ministers to 24 have been overcome,” MP Ibrahim Musawi told Al-Nour radio station.

Noting that there were still “additional complications” that need to be sorted out in order for the new government to be formed, Musawi said Hezbollah was in contact with all the parties to form a government as soon as possible.

“There is progress and optimism but this is not final to say that the government formation is imminent,” he said, adding: “The French initiative was launched today with higher vitality, gaining additional momentum.”

Musawi’s remarks came a few days after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said “serious and collective efforts are being made by more than one party to overcome the remaining obstacles [blocking] the government formation.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan warned that Lebanon risked facing “dangerous circumstances” if political leaders failed to adopt “true reforms.”

“Lebanon’s future is in the hands of the Lebanese. We hope that the Lebanese and the Lebanese leaderships ... will take a real, serious look at the situation that Lebanon is in and come together to embrace true reforms -- political reforms and economic reforms that can address the challenges that Lebanon face and can deliver sustainable solutions for the future,” Farhan said in English in an interview with CNN Sunday.

He warned that “unless the Lebanese political leadership is willing to do that,” he fears that Lebanon would be heading to “ever more dangerous circumstances.”

“The status quo in Lebanon is no longer workable,” he said, adding: “The kingdom doesn’t feel that it is appropriate to continue to subsidize or continue to support the status quo.”

Referring to Hezbollah, labeled by the US, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states a “terrorist” organization, Farhan lamented that “a non-state actor, Hezbollah, has a de facto rule, veto, over everything that happens in that country and has control over its key infrastructure.”

Commenting on challenges facing the Lebanese, such as endemic corruption and mismanagement, he said: “Lebanon needs a true reform agenda and we hope that the Lebanese politicians can come together to embrace such an agenda. If they do, we will stand there to support them.”

Asked whether Saudi Arabia would support Hariri as prime minister to implement the required reforms, Farhan said: “We hope that Saad Hariri and others can deliver that. If we see a real reform agenda from whomever it is in Lebanon, we will stand behind that.”

Saudi Arabia wields great influence in Lebanon where its Ambassador Walid Bukhari has been active in past weeks, meeting with top Lebanese political and religious leaders, discussing ways of defusing the Cabinet crisis.

The Amal Movement hoped that the Easter holiday would be an occasion to form a government capable of overcoming Lebanon’s political and economic crisis.

“The Amal Movement stressed that national unity is the most important element of Lebanon’s strength that achieves its resurrection and safeguards its immunity,” said a statement issued by Amal’s politburo that congratulated Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai and Christian sects that celebrated Easter.

Amal said it hoped that the Easter holiday would “put an end to the Lebanese pains and serve as an occasion to form a government capable, with a reform program, of bringing Lebanon out of its crisis.”

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