Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

France and US stand firm on Lebanon aid: no help without reform

Lebanon's economy is in free fall while Beirut's politicians cling to power

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meets with Patrick Durel, President Emmanuel Macron's advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon November 12, 2020. Dalati Nohra HO via REUTERS
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meets with Patrick Durel, President Emmanuel Macron's advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon November 12, 2020. Dalati Nohra HO via REUTERS

Western powers seeking to rescue Lebanon's teetering economy have given the country's leaders an ultimatum: there will be no bailout unless they form a credible government to overhaul a bankrupt state – and do it quickly.

France, the United States and other donors who repeatedly came to Lebanon's aid since the 1975-90 civil war are losing patience with its politicians, many of them familiar faces in charge during the country's descent into economic crisis.

Large scale protests erupted against the ruling elite last year as people blamed them for looking after vested interests while national debts mounted. The pandemic further strained resources and a huge port blast in August destroyed large areas of Beirut.

As dollars run low, basic goods including some medicines are in short supply and more people in Lebanon are falling below the poverty line.

French President Emmanuel Macron, a natural ally given Lebanon is a former French colony, rushed to the city after the explosion and tried to convince politicians to introduce at least partial reforms to confront the emergency.

We're still dealing with government formation as if these are normal days

US Ambassador Dorothy Shea

But rival factions are still mired in turf wars, and Lebanon has not formed a new government since the last one was brought down by the blast and its aftermath. As in previous deadlocks, each side blames the other.

In talks in Beirut last week, Patrick Durel, an adviser to Mr Macron on the Middle East and North Africa, made clear that while Paris remains committed, "we will not bail them out unless there are reforms", according to two sources who were present.

"Those times have changed", he said.

A western diplomat said France was still trying to host a planned conference on rebuilding Beirut by the end of November, but doubts remained.

"There are no developments," the diplomat said. "The Lebanese politicians are back to their way of doing business and what's worrying is the complete disregard for the population."

Tough conditionality

Dorothy Shea, the US ambassador to Lebanon, speaking to an online conference of the CSIS think tank in Washington on Friday, said the United States "gets that Lebanon matters" and that "avoiding state failure … has to be first and foremost".

But she insisted that said the donor countries "can't really want it more than they do".

Ms Shea said there would be no bailout without reforms.

"We got smart," she said, adding there would be "a step-by-step approach and no free lunch".

Saad Hariri, the Sunni prime minister-designate under the country's sectarian power-sharing agreement, is struggling to form a cabinet.

Some sources say efforts have been complicated by recent US sanctions against Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun who heads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Lebanon's largest Christian party.

Mr Bassil was hit with sanctions on corruption charges and ties with the Iran-backed paramilitary group Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful party and a strike-force for Tehran across the region, which Washington deems a terrorist organisation.

He denies the corruption charges.

The main sticking point, official sources say, is Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil's insistence on nominating Christian ministers in an 18-member government. Mr Hariri wants all ministers to be specialists and not affiliated to political parties.

A source close to the talks said some involved identified Mr Bassil as the main obstacle to a cabinet being formed. Mr Bassil denies the accusations, saying that since others were able to nominate ministers, his party was entitled to the same.

A source familiar with Hezbollah's thinking said that Mr Durel asked the group to try to persuade Mr Bassil, a close ally, to soften his stand, but that Hezbollah was reluctant to exert further pressure on him as it could weaken him further.

Hardened positions

Several sources said the current standoff was suicidal for the country, which is running through its foreign reserves fast. They are estimated at only $17.9 billion.

Because of the sanctions, which US ambassador Dorothy Shea acknowledged were part of the outgoing Donald Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran, Tehran and allies are opting to wait until Mr Trump leaves office.

But some officials in Lebanon warned against playing the waiting game.

"The message from the French now is clear: no government, no reform, then au revoir, merci," said a senior political source familiar with the talks.

"And if the French wash their hands of this, then who will still look at us? The Gulf? The US? Nobody.

"At the end of the day, they don't know how to deal with exceptional times and challenges … We're still dealing with government formation as if these are normal days."

Ms Shea said donors had to "stick to their guns", otherwise the political elite would not take them seriously.

"If they don't feel the sense of urgency to form a government how can we keep the pressure on them?" she said. "They look at us and say 'try to make us reform – It'll be fun watching you'."

Updated: November 18, 2020 01:20 PM

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