Dire warning from Jumblatt as Lebanese cabinet is blocked

A September 15 deadline that Lebanese leaders agreed upon with Paris to establish the new cabinet has already been missed.
Wednesday 16/09/2020
A file picture of Lebanese Druze leader Walid. (REUTERS)
A file picture of Lebanese Druze leader Walid. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT – A French initiative is the last chance to save Lebanon from its deep crisis but some people do not seem to understand this, Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt said, echoing a warning from Paris that the country risks disappearing without reform.

Lebanon is in the throes of a crippling economic and financial meltdown posing the biggest threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war. The crisis was compounded by a devastating Beirut port explosion on August 4.

France has been leaning on fractious Lebanese politicians to set up a new government to start reforming the corruption-ridden state, but a September 15 deadline they had agreed to with Paris for establishing the new cabinet has already been missed.

“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, as the (French) foreign minister said clearly,” Jumblatt, the main leader in Lebanon’s Druze community, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last month that Lebanon risked disappearing without critical reforms.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib has been seeking to form a cabinet to enact reforms set out as part of the French roadmap. Sources say he has been trying to switch control of ministries, many of which have been held by the same factions for years.

But major Shia and Christian players in the sectarian power-sharing system have complained that Adib, a Sunni Muslim, has not been consulting them.

The most significant objections have come from Shia Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of the Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah. He has insisted on naming the finance minister, a post he has decided on since 2014.

Hezbollah, a heavily armed militant group backed by Iran, supports his position, telling President Michel Aoun on Tuesday that Shia ministers must be approved by Shia parties and the finance minister should be a Shia, sources say.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni whose support was critical to Adib’s nomination, said 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 “the last chance to save Lebanon and the Lebanese,” referring to the French initiative.

Simon Abi Ramia, a lawmaker in the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, said on Twitter 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.

France, which is sponsoring the formation of the new government, has expressed resentment at how the country’s ruling trio – Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement, has dealt with cabinet formation efforts.

On Monday, France’s foreign ministry said that all Lebanese political parties had endorsed the government formation plan and agreed to work towards urgent reforms.

When it comes to Lebanon, the US and France have similar outlooks, but one major point of difference involves the Hezbollah movement — shunned by Washington but tolerated by a pragmatic Parisian leadership.

While the United States seeks to isolate and curb the influence of the Iran-backed group it has designated a “terrorist” organisation and punished with sanctions, France recognises it as a key political actor whose cooperation is needed to lift Lebanon out of the crisis.

Lebanon’s government stepped down last month amid popular anger over a massive blast at Beirut’s port on August 4 that killed 191 people, wounded thousands and ravaged large parts of the capital.

Both Western powers have agreed Lebanon needs a cabinet different from its predecessors but all consensus seems to end there.

The US view is that Hezbollah — the only group not to have disarmed after the 1975-1990 civil war — holds excessive influence in Lebanon, “which needs to be contained,” analyst Karim Bitar said.

But Paris recognises “Hezbollah in Lebanon is a major political actor, that it has a wide captive constituency in Lebanon’s Shia community, that it is here to stay,” he added.

US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, visiting Lebanon last week, told Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar that the US appreciated the French initiative, but differed on a few points, especially regarding Hezbollah. While France views the Shia group’s political wing as a legitimate organisation, the US  labels Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organisation. 

“Hezbollah has been given ample opportunity since 2005 to really involve itself in the state and has not changed its behaviour,” Schenker said.

Responding to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for Hezbollah’s weapons to be dealt with as a priority, Jumblatt said in a televised interview last week that the solution would come through politics.

“Let Pompeo forget the rockets for now. That matter will be solved through politics when the time is right,” he said.