One of Lebanon’s most powerful figures said on Tuesday that he has suspended an initiative to solve the country’s political crisis, signalling the severity of conditions threatening to undermine civil peace and efforts to extract the country out of economic trouble.
According to several Lebanese media outlets, parliament speaker Nabih Berri told visitors in Beirut that he has halted his efforts, without revealing details.
His initiative has been aimed at relieving pressure by Shiite militia-cum-political party Hezbollah on Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt. The two massively uneven sides are at the centre of one of the most disruptive crises since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
Mr Berri, a Shiite, has good ties with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and with the Syrian regime in Damascus. But he owes continuity in his position to Mr Jumblatt.
Although Mr Jumblatt is opposed to the Syrian regime, he played a major role in stopping Lebanese opponents of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from unseating Mr Berri as speaker following the withdrawal of Syrian regime troops from Lebanon in 2005.
Mr Jumblatt is one of Lebanon’s most recognisable civil war figures and remains a linchpin of a diverse array of politicians still opposed to the Syrian regime and to Iran, despite the rapidly increasing power of Iranian-backed Shiite proxies across the region.
“Sadly every time we try to make a breakthrough, a blockage emerges elsewhere,” Mr Berri was quoted as saying.
Political sources familiar with Mr Berri’s initiative said the 81-year-old speaker, who also heads the Shiite Amal Movement, has sought to convince Hezbollah to pause a violence-laced campaign by its allies to take Mr Jumblatt out of a political landscape he has been a fixture of for decades.
Easing the tensions would help convene the cabinet, which has not met since the end of June because of the crisis, rattling holders of Lebanese public debt expecting reforms to shore up the country’s finances.
But with Hezbollah bending Lebanon’s state organisations to their will in the past two years, the group has had little incentive to respond to Mr Berri, a Jumblatt ally said.
Hezbollah and its allies are seen as holding a slight majority in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament. The 30-member cabinet is more or less evenly split between pro and anti-Hezbollah ministers. Two ministers belong to Mr Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.
The crisis erupted on June 30 after a shootout in the Chouf Mountains, the heartland of the Druze sect, in which two bodyguards of Saleh Al Gharib, a junior, pro-Hezbollah Druze minister were killed.
Not only Hezbollah allies said the incident was an attempt on Al Gharib’s life but suggested the target was Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, another Hezbollah ally who had announced his intention to visit the region in a challenge to Mr Jumblatt but backed down.
Industry Minister Wael Bou Faour, a disciple of Mr Jumblatt, told reporters in Beirut on Tuesday that the narrative was absurd. “You have to decide, was the ambush against Minister Bassil or against Minister Al Gharib?”
Mr Wael Bou Faour said Mr Bassil was “morally, politically and legally responsible” for the shootout, which occurred near the town of Aalay.
Mr Bassil is son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, who has had a political alliance with Hezbollah since 2008. He became president in 2016, as a result of a compromise involving Hezbollah, Mr Jumblatt, Mr Berri and Saad Al Hariri, the current Sunni prime minister.
Mr Berri, Mr Jumblatt, and to some extent Mr Hariri, grew to regret their acceptance of Mr Aoun, especially as he installed his son-in-law as foreign minister. Mr Bassil is seen as vying to succeed Mr Aoun when Mr Aoun’s term ends in 2022.
Mr Bassil has employed what his critics see as crass populism to build a support base ahead of 2022. He used racist language to describe Syrian refugees and played on the eviction during the civil war of Christians by Mr Jumblatt’s forces from large areas in Mount Lebanon.
Mr Bassil has remained politically unhinged because of support by Mr Aoun, and Hezbollah.
Mr Aoun has not denied Lebanese media reports that quoted him privately as saying that the shooting incident in June was an assassination attempt against Mr Bassil.
Mr Jumblatt’s supporters questioned how Mr Aoun, from his position as president, could predetermine a matter supposed to be left to the judiciary, tarnished by a show trial a decade ago of another political figure opposed to the Syrian regime.
In 1994, when the Syrian regime had 35,000 troops in Lebanon, a special tribunal, called the Judicial Council, sentenced Christian leader Samir Geagea to death for political assassinations during the civil war.
The sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and Mr Geagea ended the as only figure from the civil war to be tried for war crimes. He spent 11 years in jail and was released when the Syrian regime forces withdrew in 2005.
Mr Geagea came out this month strongly in support of Mr Jumblatt and Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri had blocked Hezbollah’s allies from assigning the shooting case to the Special Tribunal, at the cost of the cabinet not convening, as investors grew sceptical of the country’s ability to carry out any serious reform.
In April 2018, donors in Paris pledged an $11 billion (Dh40bn) economic rescue package for Lebanon contingent on fundamental reform across a government shacked by sectarian and other fissures dating from the civil war, as well as perceived attempts by the Syrian regime to reimpose its tutelage of the country in partnership with Hezbollah.
Mr Jumblatt renounced violence after the war and initiated a series of political alliances that ebbed and flowed to protect the country’s Druze community, comprising an estimated five per cent of the country’s 6.1 million population.
During the Lebanese civil war, Mr Berri’s Amal Movement, then a militia, stopped shelling the Palestinian Mar Elias camp in Beirut in response to Mr Jumblatt, who used his ties with Mr Berri to protect the camp’s civilian population.
Three decades later, Mr Berri could not deliver on what this time could possibly determine the fate of Mr Jumblatt, one of the most iconic figures in the country’s turbulent history.