Lebanon government formation talks in limbo despite Hariri’s latest bid

President and Prime Minister-designate yet to agree on next round of talks

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon December 9, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY

After months of political bickering surrounding his designation as Prime Minister, Saad Hariri put forward on Wednesday a Cabinet lineup of 18 “non-partisan” experts that failed to win the approval of President Michel Aoun and his allies.

Mr Hariri’s latest bid to break the deadlock comes nearly two weeks prior to French President Emanuel Macron’s upcoming visit to Beirut this month, his third since the deadly explosion that shook the capital in August.

Since then, Mr Macron has pressed Lebanon’s political leaders to form a credible government tasked with enacting reforms in line with the roadmap he laid out in August to help Lebanon weather a full-blown economic and financial crisis.

Sources close to Mr Hariri portrayed his attempt as a message to the international community that the PM-designate is serious about forming a credible government that undertakes reforms in exchange for billions of dollars in financial support for Lebanon.

Those reforms still haven't materialised after the international community pledged $11billion in soft loans and financial aid for Lebanon as part of the French-sponsored Cedre conference in 2018.

But while Mr Hariri struck an upbeat note following his meeting with Mr Aoun on Wednesday, few expect his latest offer to make headway, particularly after the president retaliated with a proposal of his own.

Sources familiar with the talks said Mr Aoun’s counterproposal lacked a list of candidates and only touched on the distribution of portfolios among the major forces to be represented in the Cabinet, reflecting how far apart both officials remain over the makeup of the upcoming Cabinet.

That sentiment was on stark display less than 24 hours later when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a traditional ally of both Mr Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, dismissed reports of a breakthrough in the Cabinet formation process. "It appears the white smoke over the government will not be released soon," Mr Jumblatt tweeted on Thursday.

The Druze leader has seen his relationship with Mr Hariri suffer several setbacks in recent years, in sharp contrast to his strong ties to his father Rafik Hariri, the assassinated business tycoon credited with reconstructing Beirut after the civil war. The late premier was killed in an bomb explosion that shook Beirut in 2005.

Since the second explosion that sent shockwaves across the capital 15 years later and forced the resignation of Hassan Diab’s government in August, Mr Hariri has failed to bridge the gap with Iran-backed Hezbollah over the formation of a new Cabinet, choosing to nominate diplomat Mustapha Adib to form a government of independents as part of the French-led initiative.

Mr Adib stepped down after Mr Aoun, Hezbollah and their allies insisted on choosing their representatives in the Cabinet, paving the way for Mr Hariri’s designation once again to form a government.

Three months later, Mr Aoun continues to insist that Mr Hariri consults with all groups on the Cabinet make-up to ensure that the government later secures a vote of confidence in parliament, where the president along with Hezbollah, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and their allies hold a majority.

Hezbollah has refused to hand Mr Hariri its list of candidates before the Prime Minister-designate agrees with the president over the latter’s share in the government.

Mr Aoun is reportedly demanding that he nominates seven of the nine Christian ministers to be appointed, effectively granting him the power to veto key resolutions in an 18-member Cabinet.

Mr Aoun and Mr Hariri have yet to agree on the date of their next meeting, a source close to the President said, downplaying the possibility of another round of talks before next week.

Mr Hariri’s push to form a Cabinet has been further complicated by recent US sanctions against Hezbollah and some of his senior allies, including Gebran Bassil, the President's son-in-law and leader of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, the US is now considering sanctions against Central Bank officials over concerns of "money laundering, corruption and links to Hezbollah."

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, a figure close to Mr Hariri, has resisted international demands to audit the Central Bank’s accounts, a pre-requisite for an IMF program to support Lebanon.

Without an IMF program in place, Lebanon’s economic crisis is expected to further deepen, plunging over half of the population into poverty by 2021, according to World Bank estimates.

The deteriorating economic situation could threaten Lebanon's security stability, caretaker Interior Minister Mohamad Fehmi told The National earlier this week.