As a result of Lebanon’s failure to form a new government by mid-September in accordance with a schedule laid out together with France, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed disappointment on Wednesday, September 16, 2020.
The agreement from September 1st came in the wake of the explosion at the main port in the capital Beirut on August 4th after 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate left unattended for years ignited in a warehouse there. To recap, the explosion, felt for miles, left 190 dead, 6,500 injured, including 19 French citizens, and 300,000 displaced.
As scheduled in advance, Macron visited Beirut two days after the blast, meeting with the heads of state over the crisis. He then returned September 1st to delineate a path out of the quagmire Lebanon has become. As such, the countries agreed that a new government would be put in place by September 15th. On a more general note, the French road map set out milestones for a new government, ranging from resuming stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund to fixing the broken electricity system.
In a public statement on the French Presidency’s website, Macron declared that “France regrets that Lebanese politicians have not managed to keep the commitments made to President Macron on September 1, 2020, according to the announced schedule”. “It is not yet too late: Everyone must take their responsibilities and finally act in the sole interest of Lebanon by allowing Mr. Mustapha Adib to form a government that is up to the gravity of the situation,” it said in the same statement.
On August 31st, Mustapha Adib was installed as the new prime minister. Adib had previously been ambassador to Germany.
After the first disappointing reaction, a new deadline, for Sunday, September 20th, was established and the second day after the announcement of a new deadline for the formation of the Lebanese government, on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron contacted his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun on Friday, the two officials stressing the importance of setting up “as quickly as possible” the cabinet of Mustapha Adib.
The Lebanese Presidency confirmed this call between Macron and Aoun, adding that the two men had discussed the current state of negotiations and “the importance of continuing efforts to ensure the birth of the cabinet,” as soon as possible.
According to information from a local news channel, President Macron intends to personally make a series of appeals to Lebanese political leaders over the next few hours in order to find solutions to the various obstacles. France wants its initiative to succeed, even if that means making some changes, according to the channel. Since last night, no progress has been recorded in the negotiations between the parties concerned, who however continue their contacts. The Lebanese Head of State remains in favor of the principle of rotation of ministerial portfolios between the different parties and faiths, also advocated by Mustapha Adib.
In accordance with the commitment made by the various political parties during the French President’s visit to Beirut on September 1st, Mustapha Adib was supposed to form, in fifteen days, a “mission” cabinet composed of independent specialists while respecting the principle of rotation of portfolios. In form, the establishment of the government of Mustapha Adib still comes up against the Ministry of Finance that the Amal-Hezbollah duo wants to keep at all costs. This is a Sunni-Shiite political settling of scores played out at the level of government negotiations, being the most significant objections, also directed from Shia Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah. He has insisted on naming the Finance minister, a post he has decided on since 2014.
During the night from Wednesday to Thursday, everything led to believe, however, that the “mission government” expected at the local and international levels would soon see the light of day. This positive atmosphere distilled following an interview between the French Ambassador Bruno Foucher and Ammar Moussaoui, head of international relations at Hezbollah, with the participation by videoconference of Bernard Émié, head of French external intelligence, in charge of the Lebanese file. A source close to the Shiite party assured L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) that during this meeting “the French have accepted the principle of allocating finance to the Shiite community”. The same source also indicated that the French have also approved “the principle according to which it is up to the Amal-Hezbollah tandem to appoint the Shiite ministers.”
“The French probably did not exert enough pressure to allow the birth of the cabinet,” said a close Hezbollah contact contacted by the OLJ. But he also accuses the four former heads of government, in particular Saad Hariri and his colleague Fouad Siniora, of preventing the establishment of the cabinet “for the simple reason that they are opposed to the allocation of Finance to the Shiites”, since Hariri has also stated no sect had the exclusive right to the Finance ministry or other portfolios. In a tweet, Hariri said rejecting the idea of switching control of ministries was frustrating, being “the last chance to save Lebanon and the Lebanese”, referring to the French initiative.
The pair is pressing for the cabinet to be made up of 20 ministers appointed by the political parties. Unlike Mr. Adib, he is adamantly opposed to job rotation. He also wants to keep the Finance portfolio to ensure the Shiite countersignature on the decrees co-signed by the President of the Republic (Maronite) and the Prime Minister (Sunni).
The Hezbollah parliamentary group was quick to respond to Mr. Adib. In a statement issued after his weekly meeting, he returned to the charge, arguing for retaining the Finance ministry and appointing Shiite ministers. In the face of the challenges, the designated PM announced on Thursday that he would give himself a little more time to carry out his mission. This decision came after the new deadline granted by France.
“It appears that some did not understand or did not want to understand that the French initiative is the last opportunity to save Lebanon and to prevent its disappearance,” Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, wrote on Twitter. He echoed comments by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who last month said Lebanon could disappear without critical reforms.
Simon Abi Ramia, a legislator in the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, said on Twitter that Lebanon faced a critical 24 hours in which either the “logic of reason” would win and a government would emerge, or Adib would step down.