Lebanon's Aoun warns of crisis on eve of stepping down but hints at deal

Country faces the prospect of no president and no cabinet if MPs cannot agree a new head of state by Monday

The term of Lebanon's President Michel Aoun ends on October 31, meaning the country faces the prospect of having no president or Cabinet. AFP
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Lebanon could be sliding into “constitutional chaos” with no one lined up to take over the presidency and no formal Cabinet leading government, outgoing president Michel Aoun told Reuters on Saturday.

An 11th-hour political deal may yet prevent the crisis, Mr Aoun said, but added that there “is no final decision” on what that could involve.

Mr Aoun is planning to vacate Baabda Palace on Saturday, the day before the end of his six-year term. MPs have failed four times now to elect his successor, either casting mostly blank ballots or failing to show up to the session meaning it ends with no quorum.

Lebanon has faced prolonged political vacuums before — indeed Mr Aoun’s own election ended a 29-month gap and 45 Parliament sessions to gather a quorum. However, it faces the unprecedented prospect of neither having a president nor a Cabinet.

Mr Aoun's presidency is inextricably linked in the minds of many Lebanese to their country's worst days since the 1975-1990 civil war, with the financial crisis that began in 2019 and the deadly Beirut port blast of 2020.

His son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who was put on a sanctions list by the United States in 2020 for alleged corruption, which he denies, is seen as having presidential ambitions but told The National this week that he wasn’t standing.

Mr Aoun said on Saturday that the sanctions would not stop Mr Bassil from eventually being a presidential candidate.

“Once he's elected [as president], the sanctions will go away,” Mr Aoun said, without elaborating.

In his final week as president, Mr Aoun signed a US-brokered deal delineating Lebanon's southern maritime border with Israel — a historic diplomatic breakthrough that would allow both countries to extract natural gas from maritime deposits.

He said the powerful Iran-backed armed group Hezbollah, which sent unarmed drones over Israel and threatened to attack its offshore rigs multiple times, had served as a “deterrent” that had helped keep the negotiations going in Lebanon's favour.

“It wasn't co-ordinated [with the government]. It was an initiative taken by Hezbollah and it was useful,” Mr Aoun said.

He said the deal paved the way for gas discoveries that could be Lebanon's “last chance” at recovering from a three-year financial meltdown that has cost the currency 95 per cent of its value and pushed 80 per cent of the population into poverty.

Updated: October 29, 2022, 1:49 PM