Street protests in Lebanon fail to revive Cabinet crisis talks

The new Cabinet would be tasked with implementing a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War

  
A demonstrator sits on the ground near burning fire during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardship, in Beirut, Lebanon March 2, 2021.

A demonstrator sits on the ground near burning fire during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardship, in Beirut, Lebanon March 2, 2021.

Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: While street protests over the deteriorating economic and living conditions raged Wednesday for the second day in a row, there was no indication that public agitation over the collapsing pound would push top leaders to meet in a bid to break the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock.

The pound held at the 10,000 resistance point against the dollar in the black market Wednesday, a day after the currency's plunge sparked nationwide protests.

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri flew to the United Arab Emirates Wednesday after waiting for days for a contact from President Michel Aoun to meet to discuss with him his proposed Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists he presented to the president on Dec. 9.

The new Cabinet would be tasked with implementing a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Hariri said last month Aoun had rejected the proposed Cabinet lineup because he wanted a share of six ministers, plus an Armenian Tashnag minister, or seven ministers, meaning a blocking third, or veto power. He also accused Aoun of blocking the formation of a new government by insisting on veto power. Hariri has vowed not to grant veto power to any party in the government.

Asked whether the street protests would lead to reviving talks on the stalled Cabinet formation process, now in its seventh month, a source close to Hariri told The Daily Star: “There is nothing new at all [in the Cabinet formation process] and the positions [of Aoun and Hariri] remain the same.”

Hariri's trip to the UAE Wednesday was part of his tour aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states. He has already visited Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and France. Media reports said Hariri planned to also visit Britain and Germany.

A Future Movement MP warned Wednesday that the troubled country risked plunging into a “social explosion and security flare-up” if a new government was not formed to deal with the crippling economic crisis.

“The dollar yesterday [Tuesday] reached LL10,000 and there is nothing to stop it from rising further in the absence of the ability to seriously deal with the economic, financial and monetary situation. The only hope is the formation of a new government under the terms which the international community and the French initiative have spoken about: a government made up of competent, clean-handed specialists without a blocking third [veto power],” Future MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star.

“But unfortunately, the one holding up the Cabinet lineup is the president. Therefore, the president along with the head of the Free Patriotic Movement [MP] Gebran Bassil bear responsibility for what is happening and what might happen later,” he said.

Hajjar accused Aoun of blocking the government formation with his insistence on acquiring veto power. “Therefore, the president bears full responsibility for any [possible] social explosion and probably security flare-up that might erupt in the country amid the state of denial in which this team [Aoun and Bassil] are living,” he added.

More than four months after his designation on Oct. 22 to form a new Cabinet and after 16 meetings, Hariri and Aoun remain at odds over the shape and size of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists, the distribution of key portfolios, namely the Interior and Justice ministries, and who gets to name the Christian ministers. Hariri was reported to be insisting on controlling the Interior Ministry.

Future Movement officials have said Hariri rejected a proposal, made by Bassil last month, for raising the number of ministers in the proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to 20 or 22 ministers, to add two ministerial seats, one for the Druze sect and the other for the Melkite Greek Catholic sect.

A few days after Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai repeated his controversial calls for declaring Lebanon’s “neutrality” and for a UN-sponsored international conference to resolve the country’s deepening political and economic crises, the Maronite bishops Wednesday said the street protests reflected the ruling elite’s total failure in handling the country's economic woes.

“The protests that happened last [Tuesday] night arising from the unchecked rise in the dollar exchange rate and the horrible decline in the value of the Lebanese currency again indicate the deep hole in which the Lebanese people were pushed economically and financially and the total failure of the political authority in dealing with this situation. This is because it [political authority] has refrained unjustly from forming a ‘mission’ government made up of nonpartisan specialists who are capable of facing the difficult conditions in the country as needed,” said a statement issued after the monthly meeting of the Maronite bishops chaired by Rai at his seat in Bkirki, northeast of Beirut.

Referring to last Saturday’s rally in Bkirki at which Rai repeated his calls for Lebanon’s “neutrality” and for an international conference, the bishops praised the “major national event” in support of the patriarch’s position.

“The patriarch’s position called for declaring Lebanon’s neutrality to safeguard its complete sovereignty and neutralize it from regional and international struggles and wars and for convening an international conference on Lebanon under United Nations auspices in order to save it from the state of political, economic and financial collapse,” the statement added.

Rai’s calls have deepened political divisions in the country after Hezbollah and its allies and the top Shiite religious authority have rejected them. The Future Movement has also avoided supporting Rai’s calls.

The FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc warned of the negative consequences of the delay in the government formation.

“The bloc is still waiting for the prime minister-designate to act to hold the necessary consultations and cooperation with the president to present a Cabinet lineup according to the constitutional and [National] Pact rules and without any misunderstanding or ambiguity in order to agree on it and issue the [Cabinet] decree at the utmost speed,” said a statement issued after the bloc’s online weekly meeting chaired by Bassil Tuesday.

“The delay [in Cabinet formation] helps in draining the financial situation, whether the rising rate of the dollar is the result of currency speculation, political pressure, or linked to the Central Bank’s circular. This is unacceptable because it undermines the purchasing power of citizens and threatens social unrest with grave consequences,” it added.

The Cabinet impasse comes as Lebanon is wrestling with multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has sent the pound crashing and losing more than 85 percent of its value since 2019, and subsequently put half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below poverty line.

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