Lebanon's PM might step down if Cabinet impasse persists

This comes as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Lebanon this week has been shrouded with complete secrecy, fueling conflicting speculation and interpretation about the real objectives of the trip

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

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

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri might step down if Cabinet options opposed to his convictions are imposed on him, Future officials said Tuesday, in the latest chapter in the monthslong government formation saga.

This comes as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Lebanon this week has been shrouded with complete secrecy, fueling conflicting speculation and interpretation about the real objectives of the trip which is aimed at reviving the stalled French initiative and speeding up the formation of a new government to rescue Lebanon from total economic collapse.

Le Drian is slated to arrive here Wednesday night and would hold talks with Lebanese leaders Thursday. Except for two scheduled meetings with President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the French Embassy in Beirut has not yet released Le Drian’s itinerary.

There has been no confirmation yet from the French side on whether Le Drian would also meet with Hariri, a vehement supporter of the French initiative, to discuss ways of eliminating obstacles hindering the formation of a new government.

This has caused resentment and unease within Hariri’s parliamentary Future Movement bloc which responded with a threat by the premier-designate to abandon efforts to form a new government

Future MP Hadi Hobeish said that so far no appointment has been set for a meeting between Le Drian and Hariri, adding that stepping down was one of the options for the premier-designate.

“Stepping down is one of the proposed options to Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, but he has not yet decided on it and he is still upholding the French initiative,” Hobeish said in a TV interview. “If [Cabinet] options are imposed on Hariri that do not conform to his options, he will step down,” he added.

Although so far no appointment has been set for a meeting between Hariri and the French foreign minister, Hobeish said an appointment could be requested in the coming hours. He stressed that there was no link between Le Drian’s refusal to meet Hariri and the possibility of the premier-designate stepping down.

Expressing frustration over failed local and regional attempts to break the Cabinet formation deadlock, Hobeish said: “The loser from what is happening is the Lebanese people.”

Future MP Mohammad Hajjar also hinted at the possibility of Hariri stepping aside if the Cabinet stalemate dragged on indefinitely. He said it was logical for the French foreign minister to meet with Hariri, whose designation on Oct. 22 to form a new government was backed, in addition to a parliamentary majority, by France and Arab countries.

Asked about the possibility of Hariri stepping aside, Hajjar told The Daily Star: “If stepping down will serve the country’s interest, Prime Minister Hariri has never indicated he is adamant on sticking to power. He has accepted under these difficult circumstances to be designated to form a new government because he sees that he can do something to pull the country out of the state of paralysis and government vacuum which the [Aoun’s] mandate and the ruling team have put the country in.”

“Prime Minister Hariri might resort to any option or any position that he deems is in the nation’s interest,” Hajjar added.

Former Future MP Mustafa Alloush said Hariri was pondering his options in the light of Le Drian’s visit. He said Le Drian’s official meetings have been confined to Aoun and Berri, adding it was not known whether the French minister would meet other leaders.

“Hariri is convinced of the need to do something to break the current standstill in the Cabinet file,” Alloush, a member of the Future Movement’s politburo, said in a TV interview.

Commenting on possible French sanctions on Lebanese politicians accused of blocking the government formation and implicated in corruption, he said: “The obstructers are fighting a battle for political survival. Therefore, I am not sure that any sanctions will have an impact, unless there is the ‘stick and carrot’ theory. We have to wait. I think matters go beyond the threat of [imposing] French sanctions.”

Hariri and Future Movement officials have repeatedly accused Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, of blocking the government formation with their insistence on gaining a blocking one-third [veto power], something that the premier-designate has vowed not to grant to any side.

An official source said Le Drian’s visit and his meetings in Beirut have been shrouded with “complete secrecy.”

“Le Drian’s mission is not clear but it is directly connected with calls for the swift formation of a new government to deliver urgent reforms,” the source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

The source said the French foreign minister might seek to arrange a meeting between Hariri and Bassil in a bid to resolve differences over the naming of Christian ministers, a major hurdle hindering the Cabinet formation.

“In the absence of official information from the French side, there is much speculation, analysis and interpretations about Le Drian’s visit,” the source said.

Le Drian was reported to have asked to meet Bassil, the leader of Lebanon's biggest Christian political bloc, who is under US sanctions for alleged corruption and his ties to Hezbollah. Bassil was also shunned by Arab and US officials who visited Lebanon recently as part of mediation efforts to break the Cabinet deadlock.

An official source said Le Drian’s visit to Beirut would be dominated by the talk about “punitive measures” against Lebanese politicians accused of obstructing the government formation.

Ahead of his planned trip, Le Drian said last week his government "has started to put in place measures restricting access to French territory for people implicated in the political blockage underway, or implicated in corruption" in Lebanon.

He did not name any of those targeted or say how many. The move stops short of sanctions for now, but Le Drian said more could come later.

With the European Union, Paris has been working on creating a sanctions regime for Lebanon that could ultimately see asset freezes and travel bans as part of stepped-up pressure on Lebanese politicians to form a new government to deliver reforms, rebuild Beirut after the port blast and shore up the country’s flagging economy.

However, that is likely to take time. As part of efforts to ramp up pressure on key Lebanese actors, France intends to stop issuing visas to certain officials. French diplomatic sources have said that Bassil could be one of those targeted, although he has no specific ties to France.

Since his designation last year to form a new government, Hariri has been struggling to form a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to be tasked with implementing urgent reforms stipulated in the French initiative.

But a deepening rift between Aoun and Hariri over the size and makeup of the proposed Cabinet of nonpolitical experts for more than eight months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to tackle a series of crises, including an economic meltdown that is posing the gravest threat to its stability since the Civil War. Aoun and Hariri still disagree on the distribution of key ministerial seats, namely the Justice and Interior ministries, and the naming of Christian ministers.

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