Doubts about Lebanese PM meeting French cabinet formation deadline

Sources said a government could yet emerge in the next few days.
Monday 14/09/2020
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with Prime Minister-Designate Mustapha Adib, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 14. (AP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with Prime Minister-Designate Mustapha Adib, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 14. (AP)

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

Lebanese leaders promised French President Emmanuel Macron in Beirut on September 1 to 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.

“God willing, all will be well,” Adib told reporters following his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

An official source had previously said the prime minister-designate, a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon’s sectarian system of power sharing, would present plans for his cabinet on Monday.

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

Despite the international pressure, Lebanon is currently facing an uphill struggle to deliver the new government, with new US sanctions on Hezbollah allies complicating the process, Lebanese political sources said.

The same sources said a government could yet emerge in the next few days. The stakes could hardly be higher as Lebanon grapples with a financial meltdown and the aftermath of a catastrophic port explosion in Beirut on August 4.

The already complex task has been made more so by US sanctions on the senior aide to Berri and a Christian politician, three political sources familiar with the process said.

Forming new Lebanese governments typically takes many months of bartering over how to share out portfolios among Christian and Muslim factions.

The new US sanctions were imposed on Berri adviser Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister, and Christian politician Yusuf Finyanus, a former public works minister.

Washington says it shares French goals in demanding reform in Lebanon but differs with Paris over its policy on Hezbollah, a heavily armed Shia group backed by Iran that Washington deems a ‘terrorist organisation’ while France views it an elected part of the system.

Some observers believed the US sanctions and the threat of more to come could catalyse the government formation, arguing this will make Hezbollah allies such as Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement more cooperative.

But Berri, shocked by the sanctions on Khalil, responded by hardening his stance on naming the next finance minister, a post he has decided since Khalil first took the job in 2014, according to the three sources from different Lebanese factions.

This makes it harder for Adib to achieve his goal of changing the leadership in that ministry and others where donors want to see reform, said one of the sources, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to political sensitivities.

Several of these ministries have been controlled by the same factions for years and they will resist letting go if Berri gets to name the next finance minister.

“There is definitely a complicating factor from the US sanctions,” said the source from outside the Shia camp.

“Hours if not minutes before the sanctions, all the indications were positive, that (the Shia camp) were going to facilitate the government formation. Immediately after the sanctions, there was this knee-jerk reaction,” the source said.

The question now is whether Berri and Hezbollah will give ground, to support the French initiative and stop Lebanon slipping deeper into trouble. This should become clear in the next 48 hours, the source said.

A political source familiar with Hezbollah and Amal’s thinking said that, while the finance ministry had been up for negotiation before the sanctions, Berri was now completely determined to name the minister.

A diplomat said on Thursday there had always been scepticism that a cabinet could be agreed in two weeks.

Political sources say Adib, who is seeking to form a cabinet of experts to deliver reform, has said he will step down if he is unable to proceed according to plan.

The US sanctions are not the only complication.

Adib, who was nominated by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is drafting his cabinet line-up without consulting other parties, a Christian political source said.

“Shias and Christians will find it unacceptable that their ministers are picked by the Sunni prime minister unilaterally,” said a Christian political source. The source said the ministers should be picked jointly, the same way Adib was.