Lebanese politics complicate preparations for Beirut summit

Beirut announced that preparations for the January 19-20 summit were in place but declarations by Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri cast doubts about whether the meetings would take place.
Sunday 13/01/2019
No government, no summit. Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri gestures at the presidential palace in Baabda.                 (Reuters)
No government, no summit. Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri gestures at the presidential palace in Baabda. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Plans for the Arab Economic Summit in Beirut stumbled on complicating local factors, issues not unrelated to forming a new Lebanese government.

Beirut announced that logistical preparations for the January 19-20 summit are in place but declarations by Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri cast doubts about whether the meetings would take place.

Berri called for postponing the summit because there was no Lebanese government in place. Complicating the situation further, he requested that Syria attend the summit.

Berri has often been chided by Damascus for his ambiguous position on the regime of President Bashar Assad during the Syrian civil war. Through his position on the summit, it looks as if wanted to start the bidding on the necessity to have Syria attend the summit. Berri has said that he would not attend the meetings of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union if Syria is left out.

Even though Berri tried to maintain a balance locally and on the Arab level, he was the first to send ministers from his Amal Movement to Damascus towards normalising Lebanese-Syrian relations.

Analysts said Berri’s position on the Arab Economic Summit was an occasion for him to meet Damascus’s wishes, especially if he is of the opinion there is an encouraging Arab mood towards Syria in light of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s visit to Damascus and the opening of UAE and Bahraini embassies in Damascus, They are seen as indications of the process of allowing Syria back into the Arab League.

Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended in November 2011 because of Assad’s use of the military to quell popular protests.

Berri, however, has taken a purely populist stance because he knows that Lebanon is only the host country and that any decision to have or postpone the summit would be made by the Arab League. Other Lebanese authorities said they have no intention of postponing the summit.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said Beirut was “not the decision maker” in inviting Syria to the summit “but it can initiate and work for its presence.” Hezbollah said Lebanon should invite Syria to the meetings because it would “strengthen Lebanon and serve its strategic interest.”

Members of the March 14 Alliance, which opposes the Assad regime, said they were against inviting Syria to the economic summit. Several of its leaders threatened to organise protests if Assad travelled to Beirut.

The Future Movement, headed by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri; the Lebanese Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt; and the Lebanese Forces Party, led by Samir Geagea, have stated positions against resuming relations with Syria.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun is reported to have said that the summit will take place as planned because there is a caretaker government in Lebanon. Berri’s remarks sounded as if they were directed against Aoun. Berri and his parliamentary bloc voted against Aoun in presidential elections.

The statements of both camps are likely coloured by tensions created by the insistence of Aoun and Bassil — the president’s son-in-law — on having 11 ministers in the next cabinet, which would give them enough voting power to block the government.

This insistence undermined an agreement concerning the crisis created by Hezbollah’s insistence on allocating a cabinet position to its Sunni bloc. Aoun refused to cede one of his movement’s seats in the cabinet for the benefit of the “consultative meeting of independent Sunni representatives.”

Lebanese political sources said the Arab Economic Summit was not an encouraging factor towards forming a government. It has, rather, become another reason for debate and divisiveness.

The sources said the summit will take place as scheduled unless there is an emergency or an Arab position to prevent it or if Aoun determines that circumstances in Lebanon make it impossible to have the summit in Beirut. Berri knows that.

It seemed surprising that Berri encroached on the president’s prerogatives and risked becoming entangled in a controversial position with the Arab League when the prevailing impression in the Arab world is that Iran has control over Lebanese decisions.

Lebanese authorities said Beirut is waiting for confirmations of the summit participation to form an idea about the level of representation to the meetings. Experts focused on Saudi Arabia’s decision, which would determine the level of representation of other Gulf counties. They said the Saudi attendance may fall short of Lebanese hopes.

While the Arab League hasn’t announced a decision regarding the summit, sources did not rule out a postponement if it turned out that the expected participation was below the level of representation of a “summit.”

Other sources would not rule out that some countries would purposely raise their level of participation so it wouldn’t be said that a summit not attended by Damascus does not enjoy high-level stature.

Some said that, if Damascus is included in the Arab League summit in March in Tunis, the success of the Beirut meeting should be ensured because it would represent the spirit of joint Arab action in a country where Iranian influence is presumed to have made considerable inroads.