Macron Plans to Visit Lebanon to Help Break The Weekslong 'War of Words' Standoff

With the Cabinet formation process hitting a dead-end after the eruption of a “war of words” between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, reflecting wide differences over the makeup of a new government, attention is focused on a new visit to Lebanon by French President next week to help break the weekslong standoff.

Macron is scheduled to visit Beirut on Dec. 22-23, marking his third trip to the crises-stricken country since the massive Aug. 4 explosion that devastated Beirut Port, left half of the capital in ruins, killed nearly 200 people and injured thousands.

“The government formation process is at a complete standstill. There are internal mediators working to bridge the gap between President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri over the Cabinet formation. But the chances of this mediation bid to break the deadlock are weak,” an official source told The Daily Star Tuesday.

“With no chance to resolve the Cabinet crisis internally, Lebanese popular and political attention is focused on President Macron’s visit to Beirut next week in the hope it will help achieve a breakthrough in the government formation gridlock,” the source said.

The source noted that a week after Hariri had presented to Aoun his first draft Cabinet lineup since he was designated to form a new government on Oct. 22, no meeting has so far been planned between the two leaders to try to resolve differences over the names of potential ministers and the shape of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists desperately awaited by the Lebanese and the international community to enact reforms and salvage Lebanon’s collapsing economy.

After presenting his Cabinet lineup to Aoun last Wednesday, Hariri sounded upbeat about forming a new government soon to deliver reforms and halt Lebanon’s economic collapse. But Hariri’s optimism has since faded by a counter-Cabinet proposal presented by Aoun. The president’s unprecedented move was viewed as a rejection of the premier-designate’s proposed Cabinet lineup.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri also held out hope that Macron might be able to help in resolving the Cabinet crisis during his forthcoming visit. He said the path to a new Lebanese government was completely blocked.

“The situation is not comfortable at all. We have entered a tunnel and I don’t know how we will get out of it,” Berri said in remarks published by Al-Joumhouria newspaper Tuesday. “We are in a pitiful situation. The government situation is completely blocked.”

“Why this blockage? The answer certainly lies with the president and the prime minister-designate,” Berri said. “God willing, French President will be able to do something in his coming visit. We can only wait.” Berri stressed that the deteriorating economic conditions in the country required a quick formation of a new government.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since Aug. 10 when then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned in the aftermath of the port explosion, although it stayed on in a caretaker capacity.

In a development further complicating the Cabinet formation efforts, Aoun and Hariri Monday aired their differences over the formation , engaging in a “war of words” with each blaming the other for the delay.

In a statement issued by his media office, Hariri disclosed that Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement headed by MP Gebran Bassil demanded a veto power in the next government. Hariri, who staunchly rejects granting any party a veto power in the next government, implicitly blamed, Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, for the obstruction of the Cabinet formation.

Hariri also disclosed that Aoun wanted a government in which all political parties are represented, which runs contrary to the premier-designate’s decision to exclude representatives of those parties.

Responding to Hariri’statement, the presidency’s media office accused Hariri of unilaterally naming ministers, especially Christian ministers, without an agreement with the president. It also accused Hariri of not adopting unified criteria in the distribution of portfolios.

The stalled Cabinet formation process was further compounded by a widening negative political backlash with a sectarian tinge to charges filed last week by lead investigator in the port blast Judge Fadi Sawwan against Diab and three former ministers for negligence in the port disaster. The country’s top Sunni political and religious leaders, including Hariri, rallied behind Diab, accusing Sawwan of targeting the premiership’s position for political purposes.

Ahead of Macron’s visit, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian painted a gloomy outlook of the situation in Lebanon, saying the country’s political and economic collapse was like the sinking of the Titanic, only without the music.

“Lebanon is the Titanic without the orchestra,” Le Drian told the daily Le Figaro in an interview published on Sunday. “The Lebanese are in complete denial as they sink, and there isn’t even the music.”

The FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc called Tuesday for the formation of “a reformist and productive government as soon as possible in order for Lebanon to benefit from French President ’s visit to discuss ways of the required [financial] support to emerge from the abyss of collapse.”

In what appeared to be a response to Hariri’s tough remarks, the bloc, in a statement issued after its weekly electronic meeting chaired by Bassil, called on the premier-designate to “stop participating, or fomenting problems, escalating positions and fabricating risks that threaten the premiership’s position on which the bloc is as much keen as it is on all constitutional positions.”

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt, who supported the French initiative to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, warned that Lebanon stood on the verge of the abyss.

“Rather, we are heading to the abyss. An opportunity came with the French initiative or what remained of it from President who told us to carry out reforms in electricity and banks and then I will open to you the prospects of negotiations for aid from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But so far, the majority of [Lebanese] parties are avoiding this matter because they have different calculations,” Joumbaltt said in an interview with the US-backed satellite channel Al-Hurra.

“The one who is preventing reforms today are those controlling power. The Free Patriotic Movement is [controlling] power. So far, we have not seen signs of a desire for reforms,” he added.

Macron was the first foreign leader to visit Beirut two days after the port blast. Following the blast, Macron led efforts to get Lebanese politicians to agree on a new government to enact reforms. But Lebanese leaders have failed to deliver reforms.

In addition to inspecting French troops serving with the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, Macron was expected to meet again with Lebanon’s rival political leaders to press them to agree on the swift formation of a “mission” government to enact reforms.

Implementation of long-overdue reforms is deemed essential to releasing billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country, which is facing an economic meltdown and a collapsing currency that has lost more than 80 percent of its value since last year, putting half of the 6 million population under the poverty line.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

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