Despite surpassing the deadline imposed by France for the formation of a new government (September 14, 2020), Lebanon has not yet reached a conclusion to the internal political crisis.
On Tuesday, September 22, 2020, France’s foreign ministry warned Lebanon’s political forces that the country risked collapse if they did not form a government without delay. “At this decisive moment in Lebanese history, Lebanese political forces are faced with a choice between recovery and collapse of the country. It is a heavy responsibility towards the Lebanese,” Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Mühll told reporters in a daily briefing.
Lebanon’s Christian president, Michel Aoun, told fractious political leaders on Monday, September 21st, the country was heading “to hell” if a new cabinet was not formed swiftly to dig the nation out of its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman added that “France regrets that Lebanese officials have not yet managed to keep the commitments made on September 1. We call on them to reach an agreement without delay on the formation by PM Mustapha Adib of a government of mission, which will then have to implement the necessary reforms.”
Experts state that Paris was reluctant to set a new deadline and was instead giving politicians more time provided they worked towards a French demand for a cabinet of ministers with the expertise to deliver reforms. Also, France said it was ready to host an international conference in the second half of October to secure aid from donors, who demand reforms before giving cash. Paris has drawn up a roadmap for a new government to tackle corruption and rebuild the economy.
The designated PM Adib has been unable to form a new cabinet, which is required to unlock billions of dollars in foreign aid, because of disagreements between political parties. As such, Adib’s efforts have been effectively blocked by the two main Shiite groups in Lebanon’s usual power-sharing arrangement, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah. The result of their stance was to isolate them from the rest of the country’s political block, including President Aoun, who has been an unwavering political ally of Hezbollah since 2006.
According to different experts, their insistence on keeping the Finance minister, as traditionally granted since 2014, is linked to recent US sanctions against a former minister from Amal, as well as Hezbollah-linked businesses.
In Lebanon, decrees are generally co-signed by the President of the Republic, who is Maronite, by the Prime Minister, who is from the Sunni community, and by the Shiite Finance minister.
Relinquishing this privilege would, for them, mean losing the Shiite counter-signature on major decisions in a political system that hinges on sectarianism and political haggling. “We refuse to have our ministers appointed for us,” Hezbollah said in a statement released on September 17 that reiterated their insistence on retaining control of the Finance ministry.
The deadlock over the ministry jeopardizes diplomatic efforts led by France, which has been heavily committed to political reform in Lebanon since the double explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4.
Another reason for France to be pushing for the rapid formation of a government is the fact that the country faces an acute economic crisis.
While PM Adib intends to challenge the historical sharing of ministerial portfolios on a sectarian basis, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement’s insistence on guarding their territory, led by Amal Movement-affiliated Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, is isolating the two groups.
On Saturday, September 20th, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by Aoun and led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, issued a statement condemning the principle that “a party may impose its countersignature on the Lebanese in a manner contrary to the Constitution and to prevailing customs”. The communiqué was an implicit jab at the two Shiite parties.
“This is not the first time that there have been disagreements between Hezbollah and the CPL, but it is true that the impasse over the finance portfolio further isolates the Shiite team,” Joseph Daher, an academic and author of the book “Hezbollah, Neoliberalism and Political Economy”, told FRANCE 24. He added: “Although President Aoun’s party seems to be distancing itself from its Shiite ally lately, it is too early to speak of questioning of their alliance because neither side has an interest in a split in which they would both lose out”.
Lebanese media reported that the sanctions imposed by the US administration on September 8th on two former ministers from parties allied to Hezbollah considered a “terrorist” organization by Washington, provoked shockwaves within the Lebanese political class.
On Wednesday, September 23rd, France backed a proposal made by Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to end a stalemate preventing the formation of the new cabinet. Hariri, a Sunni, proposed in a statement on Tuesday that PM-designate Mustapha Adib name an “independent” Shiite candidate to the finance portfolio. As a result, the French Foreign Ministry welcomed the “courageous declaration” by Hariri. It said: “This declaration represents an opening and all parties should understand its importance so that a government of mission can now be established.”