The prime minister-designate quit yesterday after months of vain attempts to form a cabinet and breach an insurmountable divide. “May God help the country!” he said. France complains of “organised obstruction”, while the US calls on Lebanon’s leaders to “put aside partisan differences”.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – On 1 July, Pope Francis made an appeal regarding Lebanon in St Peter's Basilica in Rome before the patriarchs and heads of Eastern Churches.
In his address the pontiff noted that “In these woeful times, [. . .] I would reiterate how essential it is that ‘those in power choose finally and decisively to work for true peace and not for their own interests. Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings’”.
Francis went on to say: “Stop using Lebanon and the Middle East for outside interests and profits! The Lebanese people must be given the opportunity to be the architects of a better future in their land, without undue interference.”
So far though, his words remained a dead letter. In fact, unsurprisingly but much to the disappointment of the Lebanese people, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri announced yesterday the end, despite intense negotiations, of his attempt to form a cabinet, nearly nine months after he started.
During this period, the country’s worst crisis in history got even worse; its currency’s collapse has made basic necessity inaccessible to most Lebanese; US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken bemoaned the “wasted months”, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian slammed “organised obstruction”.
Mr Hariri was tasked in October 2020 with forming a cabinet to launch essential reforms that would, in particular, unlock crucial foreign aid. A caretake cabinet has been in place since August 2020 to handled day-to-day business.
Mr Hariri's decision to quit came yesterday after a last trip to Cairo, where he received the backing of the Egyptian government, but not of Saudi Arabia. On his return, the prime minister-designate went directly to the presidential palace. where he met President Michel Aoun to whom he submitted a list of 24 independent ministers “in accordance with the wishes of the international community and the guidelines of (parliamentary speaker) Nabih Berry”.
“It is clear that the (president’s) position has not changed on the matter and that we will not be able to agree,” Hariri said after the meeting. “I offered him more time to think it over, but Mr Aoun said, ‘We can't agree’. This is why I excused myself from forming the government. May God help the country!”
Soon afterwards, the contradictions behind the failure came to light, although it is unclear who was saying the truth.
In a statement, the Office of the President said the prime minister-designate had opposed any cabinet reshuffle he presented. Conversely, in a televised interview with Al-Jadeed TV, hours after dropping out, Hariri claimed exactly the opposite, saying that he was open to replacing two or three of the ministers he proposed.
In the end, “I recused myself because I cannot govern and carry out the reforms desired by the international community, with the government of Michel Aoun,” Mr Hariri said. In any case, the unfriendliness visible in the faces of the two men suggested that there was no positive feeling between them.
Mr Hariri accuses the president of undermining his attempt to form a government by demanding a “blocking minority” (half of the ministers, plus one) in the cabinet, and by seeking to hand out portfolios along “confessional and partisan” “lines on the pretext that the finance portfolio belongs to the Shia community. As expected, the Office of the President repeatedly denied any suggestion of a “blocking minority”.
Paris: “Organized Obstruction”
From Paris and Washington came strong reactions following Hariri’s decision to quit. France “took notice” yesterday of the prime minister-designate’s decision and called for the appointment of a successor without delay.
“France notes the decision by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to give up on forming a government. This latest development confirms the political deadlock in which Lebanese leaders have deliberately been keeping the country for months, at the very time when it is plunging into an unprecedented economic and social crisis,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Under current rules, Lebanon’s president has 30 days to consult with parliament to designate a successor to Mr Hariri; however, most people fear that this period will prove insufficient and that the appointment of a new prime minister-designate will be marred by more deadlocks and endless bargaining.
“Today it is absolutely urgent to overcome this organized and unacceptable obstruction and for a government to be formed in Lebanon. This requires the immediate launch of parliamentary consultations with a view to the appointment of a new prime minister as quickly as possible,” reads the press release by the French Foreign Ministry.
“This government must be in a position to embark on the priority reforms that the situation demands. It must also set to work on preparing the 2022 elections, which will have to be held transparently, impartially and in accordance with the timetable set,” it adds.
“To meet the needs of the Lebanese people, whose situation is deteriorating every day, a new international conference of support for the Lebanese population will be organized for 4 August on the initiative of the French President, with the United Nations’ support.”
“Lebanon has been in self-destruct mode for several months,” Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a press conference following a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. “Now there is a major emergency situation for a population that is in distress,” he added.
Le Drian noted that there was now a consensus among the bloc’s 27 nations for a legal framework to impose sanctions.
For his part, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that Hariri’s decision to quit was a “disappointing development” and called on the country’s leaders to “urgently put aside partisan differences”.
Amid a “Lebanese economy [. . .] in free-fall,” the new government will have to organise parliamentary election in 2022, “which should be held on-time and conducted in a free and fair manner.”
“We will coordinate the measures of French and American pressure against those responsible for this impasse," Blinken’s French counterpart said.
In Lebanon, the Apostolic Nuncio, Bishop Joseph Spiteri, said: “My response to this development is that of the international community: Lebanon needs a new government. Who will be the leader is for the Lebanese to decide, but more than ever, we need a government with a mission (French President Emmanuel Macron’s goal) to introduce reforms necessary to unblock international aid, but even more specifically prepare for the coming parliamentary elections, especially since they can be held no later than May 2022.