Lebanon’s prime minister-designate is still deciding whether he can form a cabinet or will withdraw his nomination, former premier Fouad Siniora told The National on Thursday.
It came amid a flurry of reports that Saad Hariri would step down imminently amid a deepening political and economic crisis.
“We’re not at this stage yet,” Mr Siniora said, following reports that Mr Hariri was losing hope of achieving a breakthrough in Cabinet formation talks with President Michel Aoun nine months after his nomination to be the prime minister. Lebanon has been without a functioning government since Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned after the August 4 explosion at Beirut port that destroyed much of the capital and killed more than 200 people.
Were Mr Hariri to withdraw, a simple parliamentary majority – currently held by the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies – would be needed to name the successor, Mr Siniora said. Mr Siniora used to head Mr Hariri's Future Movement parliamentary bloc.
“Assuming that the prime minister-designate decides to step down … without suggesting another candidate, democratic norms should be respected,” Mr Siniora said. "They have a parliamentary majority, so let them form a government."
Mr Hariri has been at loggerheads with the president over the make-up of the government and its reform agenda and has accused Mr Aoun of blocking the formation of an administration of independent experts that commits to the implementation of reforms in exchange for international financial support.
Mr Aoun, on the other hand, has argued that Mr Hariri is seeking to dictate the line-up to the president in violation of the constitution, a position that Mr Siniora strongly disputed.
“The president has the right to discuss cabinet’s line-up with the prime minister-designate but it is the latter who bears responsibility towards parliament,” Mr Siniora said.
The constitution requires the Cabinet to secure a vote of confidence in parliament after both the president and the prime minister-designate sign off on the line-up.
Mr Siniora went further, accusing Hezbollah and the president of blocking the Cabinet formation.
The former prime minister said Hezbollah was behind the president’s uncompromising position in blocking it in an attempt to give Iran leverage in its continuing nuclear and sanctions negotiations with the US.
Mr Aoun wants Hezbollah's guarantee that it will support a presidential bid by his son-in-law and head of the largest parliamentary bloc, MP Gebran Bassil, in the coming 2022 presidential race, Rosana Bou Monsef, a political analyst, told The National.
Despite being targeted with US sanctions over corruption last year, Mr Bassil has maintained a strong alliance with Hezbollah. The armed group has played a key role in Mr Aoun’s election as president in 2016, despite strong opposition from the party’s key Shiite ally, Speaker Nabih Berri.
The Speaker has been vocal in his support for Mr Hariri’s bid to form a Cabinet and has reportedly asked the prime minister-designate to nominate a successor if he plans to step down.
Mr Aoun, on the other hand, is awaiting Mr Hariri’s final decision based on the outcome of discussions with Mr Berri, a source close to the president told The National.
Whether such an agreement materialises remains to be seen, Mrs Bou Monsef said.
“Mr Hariri’s withdrawal as prime minister-designate under pressure from Hezbollah and the president is problematic because it undermines the Saudi-Syrian sponsored Taif accord – the agreement which was backed by major powers and ended Lebanon’s 15-year bloody civil war some three decades ago.”
The accord marked a shift in the country’s confessional power-sharing system with some of the key roles entrusted to the president, a post reserved for a Maronite, transferred to the government, led by a Sunni prime minister.
President Aoun, who opposed the accord at the time, has maintained the same position since his election, Mr Siniora said.
Lebanon is now facing one of two choices, Mr Siniora said.
“Either Lebanon forms a Cabinet of independent and qualified experts that win the confidence of the people and the international community or one to the liking of politicians. Under the latter scenario, the cabinet will be born dead.”
The months-long political deadlock, which has deepened the worst economic and financial crisis to grip the country since late 2019, prompted major powers to extend humanitarian aid directly to the most vulnerable communities and to threaten Lebanon’s political leaders with sanctions for obstructing the Cabinet formation
The Lebanese crisis was the focus of discussions between the US and French Ambassadors to Lebanon and Saudi officials during a visit to the kingdom on Thursday.
Mr Bou Monsef said the meetings are likely to prioritise direct aid to the impoverished population as well as financial support to the army and security forces in a bid to avoid security instability as the crisis worsens.
The crisis, which plunged more than half the population into poverty and led to the national currency losing over 95 per cent of its value, has raised concerns over the cohesiveness of security institutions and the military.
The challenging circumstances prompted Lebanon's army chief to warn of the 'inevitable' collapse of the military without urgent aid at a French-sponsored conference in May.
General Joseph Aoun told representatives of major powers that the military needs the international community’s urgent support to keep carrying out its duties, warning that its “collapse” will fuel chaos and insecurity across Lebanon.
His remarks coincided with a marked increase in armed scuffles as the Lebanese struggle with daily shortages in vital supplies of fuel and medication amid dwindling foreign currencies.
“Maintaining stability and security is now a priority for major powers as Lebanese officials completely abandoned their responsibilities in addressing the crisis that they fuelled,” Mrs Bou Monsef said of the US and French ambassadors’ visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss the Lebanon situation.
The diplomats’ visit to Saudi Arabia follows a meeting on Lebanon in June on the sidelines of the G-20 conference between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.