Lebanon fails to form new government

Politicians were working to deadline agreed on with French President Emmanuel Macron

epa08664965 An anti-government protester carries a placard of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah (R), Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (C) and Lebanese President Michel Aoun (L) during a protest on the road leading to the Presidential palace in Baabda, east Beirut, Lebanon, 12 September 2020. Hundreds of anti-government protesters gather outside the Presidential palace to protest against politicians, security and judicial officials, many of whom knew about the storage of the chemicals that exploded in Beirut's port on 04 August, and did nothing.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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The French government expressed its regret on Wednesday that Lebanese politicians had failed to form a government two weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron set a September 15 deadline.

"France regrets that Lebanese political leaders have not managed to keep the commitments made to President Macron on September 1, 2020, according to the announced timeframe," an official told Reuters.

"It is not yet too late: everyone must assume their responsibilities and finally act in the sole interest of Lebanon by allowing Mustapha Adib to form a government that is up to the seriousness of the situation."

Despite two days of last-ditch talks, Lebanon’s politicians on Tuesday failed to form a new government before the deadline agreed with Mr Macron.

President Michel Aoun met the heads of parliamentary blocs at Baabda Palace on Monday and Tuesday.

But leaders were not able to come to an agreement about the make-up of a new Cabinet to be led by Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib.

France took the lead to support Lebanon after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, which killed 190 people and wounded thousands.

Mr Macron made two official visits to the Mediterranean country in less than a month and organised an online international donors' conference.

On his second visit, he met political blocs and received assurances that they would form a government within 15 days, in a turnaround for a country where formation usually takes months of negotiations.

On Monday night, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry urged Lebanon’s blocs to keep their promise of putting a government in place.

The government would have to introduce radical reforms to help Lebanon recover from an unprecedented economic and financial crisis and the destruction wrought by the port blast.

Mr Macron is expected to return to Lebanon at least twice before the end of the year to check progress on the reforms, which are key to unlocking billions of dollars of international aid.

Mr Adib, formerly Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany, was given the job of forming a government on August 31 after securing broad support from the political establishment, including Mr Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah and former prime minister Saad Hariri.

Hassan Diab, Mr Adib’s predecessor, announced the resignation of his government on August 10, less than a week after the Beirut port explosion.

Mr Adib was expected to present the president with a proposed Cabinet line-up during a meeting at Baabda Palace on Monday.

But after the 45-minute meeting with Mr Aoun, he said they discussed forming a new government and that “God willing, everything will work out".

We're seeing signals that [the political class] are falling back on the same kinds of sectarian battle

While politicians failed to meet Tuesday’s deadline, Lebanese media has reported that a government may be formed by the end of the week.

"We're seeing signals that [the political class] are falling back on the same kinds of sectarian battles," Nadim El Kak, a researcher at the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, told The National. 

Mr Adib has made few public remarks since his nomination, but he is reportedly seeking a rotation of leadership in the four “sovereign” ministries.

The interior, foreign, finance and defence ministries have been controlled by the same parties in several cabinets, and a shake-up could threaten the parties’ hold over them.

“With the current political structure in place, the ruling parties are never going to give power to ministers who they do not trust to uphold a minimum of their interests,” Mr El Kak said.

Finance Ministry is proving a stubborn problem

A key obstacle in the formation of the government is the insistence of Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and ally Hezbollah that a Shiite figure be given the charge of the Finance Ministry.

The two parties are also adamant on naming any Shiite ministers in the Cabinet.

“The Finance Ministry is a very strategic ministry,” Mr El Kak said. “The minister would have a hand in a lot of key reforms.”

Mr Berri insisted on his demand after the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister and senior member of Mr Berri's Amal Movement, for alleged corruption and aiding Hezbollah.

The French president called Mr Berri on Saturday to try to convince him to change his position, but the Speaker remained steadfast.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo
The US has imposed sanctions on Lebanon's former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Reuters

Mr Berri, who has led parliament since 1992, said on Sunday that he opposed the way the Cabinet was being formed and his party would not be part of it.

Former prime minister Saad Hariri condemned Mr Berri’s opposition to a rotation of the ministries, saying on Wednesday that “no sect has the exclusive right to the Finance Ministry or any other ministerial portfolio.”

Preventing a rotation between parties, he added, could ruin the only remaining hope to save Lebanon and its people.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was similarly critical of the political wrangling that has delayed Cabinet formation, describing the French initiative as “the last chance to stop Lebanon’s demise.”

Mr Aoun’s party also announced last week that they would not take part.

Party leader Gebran Bassil, who is Mr Aoun’s son-in-law, said that "internal and external" forces were trying to thwart government formation.

Mr Bassil criticised Mr Adib for trying to impose a line-up without broader political approval.

A long and winding road to change

Whoever makes up the next Cabinet, whether independent experts, political figures, or a combination of the two, its formation is only the first step on a long road to change in Lebanon, said Hanin Ghaddar, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

First is the implementation of the key reforms before the end of the year as outlined in an ambitious French roadmap.

Then, further down the line is a call for a reformed electoral law and parliamentary elections, which the French plan envisions in September 2021.

“These two coming battles will test everyone’s will,” Ms Ghaddar said. “Those in power will resist any change.”