Dispute over finance ministry hampers Lebanon’s cabinet formation

Adib, who met Lebanese President Michel Aoun for more consultations on Monday, received “advice” a few hours before his departure to Baabda Palace from influential political parties to wait and not present the list of names of cabinet members to Aoun.
Tuesday 15/09/2020
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib speaks with journalists after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 14. (AP)
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib speaks with journalists after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 14. (AP)

BEIRUT – An informed political source in Lebanon confirmed to The Arab Weekly on Tuesday that Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib has delayed announcing the formation of a new government until next Friday.

Adib said on Monday he had met Lebanon’s president for more consultations, raising doubts that he could form his cabinet by the deadline agreed to with France early this week to start hauling the nation out of a deep crisis.

The source, which spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed that Adib, who met Lebanese President Michel Aoun for more consultations on Monday, received “advice” a few hours before his departure to Baabda Palace from influential political parties to wait and not present the list of names of cabinet members to Aoun.

This “advice” followed news that the president was not on board with the proposed list due to Shia duo Hezbollah and Amal’s opposition to it.

Adib was advised on the need to avoid a political vacuum that the country would fall into if the new cabinet were rejected and he forced to abandon the task.

Lebanese leaders promised French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Beirut on September 1 that they would form a government in two weeks, part of a roadmap drawn up by Paris to start reforms aimed at ending the worst crisis since Lebanon’s civil war ended three decades ago.

The prime minister-designate, a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon’s sectarian system of power sharing, was to present plans for his cabinet on Monday.

However, on Sunday, Shia Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and a leading Christian politician voiced objections to the way Adib was putting the cabinet together, decreasing prospects that his technocratic government could win support across the sectarian divide.

Berri, an ally of Iran-backed Hezbollah, said his group would not join a government formed on the terms being proposed. However, he said his group would cooperate with efforts to ensure Lebanon’s stability.

There has been hardly any response from Hezbollah, the heavily armed and politically powerful movement that Washington deems a terrorist group but which Paris says has a legitimate political role to play.

Any boycott by Berri and Hezbollah would deny Adib’s proposed cabinet broad Shia support in a sectarian system built on consensus among the nation's Muslim and Christian groups.

A political source said Aoun and Adib agreed "that the sides take a breath to recrystalise this (government) formation in a way to protect it and secure its chances of succeeding."

A senior politician said Adib told Aoun he would hold more consultations. He said if Adib gave into Berri's demands, other factions would also want a say in picking ministers.

"We will be back to square zero," the politician said.

Berri wants to name the finance minister, a post held by a Shia chosen by him since 2014.

The minister will have a crucial role in drawing up Lebanon's economic rescue plan.

Political sources said Berri grew more insistent after the United States applied sanctions on his senior aide, Ali Hassan Khalil, who previously held the post.

The stakes could not be higher for Lebanon, which is grappling with a financial meltdown and the aftermath of a catastrophic port explosion in Beirut on August 4 that killed more than 200 people.

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.

"It is up to them to translate this commitment into action without delay," French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said.

"All Lebanese political forces supported this goal. It is up to them to translate this pledge into action without delay. It is their responsibility. ”

Macron said September 1 that Lebanese politicians agreed to form a cabinet in 15 days, or by Tuesday, an ambitious timeline for a process that usually takes months.

"The parties still have to fall into line," a French Elysee official said.

Earlier leaks revealed that Aoun had refused to go along with the government formation process as proposed, especially after receiving a clear message from the Shia political duo Hezbollah and Amal that they would give no room for a government they cannot control.

Political sources in Lebanon said Adib is hoping to sort out the Shia dilemma, which centres on control of the finance ministry.

The Shia duo's insistence on keeping the finance portfolio can be explained by the fact that no government decision will be approved if they are not satisfied with it. Such manoeuvres are rejected by Adib, who insists on putting an end to partisan bickering over ministerial portfolios and stresses the government must be made of experts who can work independently of political forces.

According to Lebanon’s Taif Agreement, any decision made by the government must be signed by the president, the prime minister, the minister who made the decision and the finance minister.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri previously tried to persuade Berri to give up the finance portfolio for the benefit of a non-Shia minister but failed. Now, Macron is trying to solve the issue himself, but his efforts are yet to make headway.

Berri previously stressed that "Shias' obtaining of this portfolio [the finance portfolio] is a chartered issue that is indisputable."

A prominent Lebanese politician summed up the situation by pointing to an extremely important factor that Lebanese tend to ignore: Iranian influence.

The politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Iran is not ready to easily accept a Lebanese government that is not under Hezbollah’s, especially as it considers Lebanon a key bargaining chip to use with the United States in the future.