Lebanon at critical point as PM makes last-ditch effort to form Cabinet

Saad Hariri says he presented the president with a Cabinet 'in line with' French-led initiative to support Lebanon in tackling its multiple crises

Lebanon’s prime minister-designate made a last-ditch effort on Wednesday to form a Cabinet after nine months of political bickering with the president.

Saad Hariri handed President Michel Aoun a list of prospective Cabinet members made up of non-partisan experts, which the prime minister said falls in line with a French-led international initiative to support Lebanon in tackling its worst economic and financial crisis in decades.

“I presented the president with a Cabinet line-up of 24 experts in line with the French initiative … I believe such a government can shoulder the burden and contain the crisis,” Mr Hariri said.

Mr Hariri is now awaiting the president’s response before deciding whether to withdraw his nomination, a move which could exacerbate the country’s political crisis without wide-ranging agreement over a potential successor.

“I hope that President Aoun will provide an answer tomorrow so that we can act accordingly. This is the moment of truth after nearly nine months have passed,” Mr Hariri told reporters at the presidential palace.

The prime minister-designate’s remarks follow reports of his plan to withdraw his nomination if Mr Aoun dismisses his latest Cabinet proposal, amid efforts led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s Shiite ally, to secure an agreement with Mr Hariri over his successor.

The meeting followed a short visit to Cairo where Mr Hariri met President Abdel Fatah El Sisi before returning to Beirut to meet Mr Aoun. Just hours earlier, Mr El Sisi voiced support for the “political course” taken by Mr Hariri to restore stability in Lebanon.

A government official briefed on the talks said Egypt strongly supported Mr Hariri, “partially out of concern that a total meltdown of Lebanon's economy and banking system could have negative repercussions for the entire region.”

Mr Hariri’s latest Cabinet line-up denies any one group over a third of the Cabinet seats and consequently veto power in government.

Mr Hariri has accused the president of blocking the formation of a Cabinet in which his son-in-law and presidential aspirant Gebran Bassil, the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc, would lack veto power. Mr Aoun has denied the accusation, saying that the prime minister-designate was seeking to impose the line-up in violation of the constitution.

The political paralysis has led the international community to threaten Lebanon’s officials with sanctions in coming weeks after having pressed them for months to form a Cabinet that undertakes reforms in exchange for international financial support. The international community has said financial support is contingent on the government’s implementation of long-sought reforms to fight corruption and kick-start the economy.

Mr Hariri’s latest initiative followed a flurry of diplomatic contacts as Western diplomats shuttled between Paris, Riyadh and Beirut to discuss the Lebanese crisis with a focus on humanitarian assistance.

Diplomatic activity intensified in recent days as hopes of a political breakthrough faded and the country’s woes worsened, with shortages in medication and fuel threatening to disrupt vital industries which have suffered daily power blackouts and internet outages.

Since the crisis unfolded in late 2019, the national currency has lost more than 95 per cent of its value, and more than half of the population is now living in poverty.

The crisis has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and a massive explosion that shook Beirut last August, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands.

The explosion, which caused billions of dollars in damage across the capital, forced Prime Minister Hassan Diab to resign, and the country has since lacked a functioning government.

Almost a year later, it remains unclear what triggered the explosion of tons of ammonia nitrate that were stored at the port for more than six years and the stalled investigation into the blast has sparked clashes between security forces and families of the victims.

Lawmakers asked last week for more evidence before allowing lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar to proceed with the questioning and prosecution of senior political and security officials, a move which legal experts and human rights activists say was aimed at buying politicians time in violation of the law.

It was the latest setback for an investigation that has been shrouded in controversy since the supreme court removed Mr Bitar’s predecessor after he charged Mr Diab and three former ministers with criminal negligence in connection with the blast.

Mr Diab’s indictment last year complicated talks between Mr Aoun, the Christian head of state, and Mr Hariri over the Cabinet formation.

Mr Hariri called Mr Diab’s indictment an attack on the post of prime minister, a position reserved for a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon's confessional power-sharing system.

Updated: July 14th 2021, 4:47 PM
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