03/23/2021, 18.40
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The war of wills between Aoun and Hariri is leading the country to disaster

by Fady Noun

The rift between the president and the prime minister-designate seems irreversible. Aoun's demands vis-à-vis the formation of the government clash with Hariri's vain quest for autonomy. Meanwhile, the US dollar HAS hit A new high against the Lebanese pound while the population is getting hungrier. US, UN, EU and Arab League urge Lebanese leaders to find a solution and put an end to the political and institutional stalemate.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon's political and economic collapse has been confirmed.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last December said: “For me, Lebanon is the Titanic without the orchestra. The Lebanese are sinking into total denial of their situation and there is not even music.”

More than two months later, the break is now complete between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. At their meeting on Monday, and in which the whole of Lebanon placed some hope, the bitter truth was there for all to see, the two men are completely at odds with each other.

Condemned to agree, unless the designated head of government drops out, the two men have diametrically opposed views of what the government and the future of the country should be. The subtext is the control of the state by Hezbollah and its Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, an impossible gamble that would lead to civil unrest.

Overall, the disagreement between the two men is total over their own prerogatives in forming the government and in its nature. The president would like to be fully involved in the process of picking a cabinet and exercise a right of control over its composition, on the pretext that he is not just a “mailbox”. Backed by constitutionalists, Hariri views such ambitions as a violation of the constitution, and a power grab.

Aoun has been accused of seeking a government in which he would hold a “blocking third” that he could use any time government's decisions went against his political interests. Conversely, Hariri intends to be free to form a competent government whose members would be free of any partisan allegiances, in accordance with criteria agreed with France in order to economically rescue the country.

The ministries of Justice and the Interior are another stumbling block. The president wants them to go to men close to his political movement, in anticipation of an investigation into the irregularities, which led to Lebanon’s economic collapse, by a forensic audit of the accounts of the Bank of Lebanon whose governor, Riad Salamé, is in the president’s crosshairs.

About the process

In terms of process, the prime minister obviously has to put up with an authoritarian head of state who is the age of his father. This is why, according to some, he arrived at the meeting of the last chance, on Monday 22 March, already upset and furious.

Indeed, the day before, the president had sent him a sort of table to be filled out, which included the denominational and partisan affiliation of the members of three possible cabinets (with 18, 20 or 22 ministers) that the Prime Minister-designate was supposed to “fill out” by assigning ministries to people of his choice.

For Hariri, this procedure, deemed “methodological” by the president, was truly outrageous, equally noteworthy by the fact that in each possible cabinet, the president would hold a blocking third.

What is more, two days earlier, the president had humiliated him when, in a solemn appearance on television, he had virtually ordered him to come to the presidential palace the next day!

Always with respect to the process, at the end of 2020, the president had allowed the “leak” of a video in which, during a meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, he called Saad Hariri a “liar”. However, no administrative sanction proved to Hariri's satisfaction that this was really a leak rather than a deliberate insult.

After this incident, the head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi, tried in vain to patch up things between the two men. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt tried to do the same, to no avail, before Monday's stormy meeting, urging the two men to seek a “compromise” that would move them beyond a power struggle towards a unifying solution.

Local and international reactions

The country immediately reacted to the Aoun-Hariri divorce with a new surge in the dollar as the situation remains tense.

The reaction at the Arab and international levels has also been very negative. An official with the US State Department on Monday urged Lebanese leaders to “put aside their partisan brinkmanship and form a government”.

Earlier, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East David Schenker had accused by name lawmaker Gebran Bassil of blocking the formation of the government to satisfy his personal ambitions.

Patriarch al-Rahi spoke by telephone Monday evening with UN Secretary General António Guterres about the situation in Lebanon, noting the “inability” of its leaders to “sit down together to agree on a rescue project, while hunger and poverty spread and the national currency collapses and pushes the country towards a total collapse.”

A day earlier, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian had asked the European Union to use its “leverage” on Lebanese politicians to get them to form a government and adopt reforms in a country “adrift”.

“Everyone knows what to do, but it is blocked by special interests, because politicians cannot start the process,” Le Drian said at a meeting in Brussels with his EU counterparts, but without mentioning the word sanction.

The Arab League also urged Lebanon to react and break the standoff.

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