Lebanon’s stuttering cabinet process may prove to be the easy part

Once named, the ministers have a mountain of challenges, ranging from reviving a paralysed banking industry to fixing a power sector that cannot keep the lights on in a nation of about 6 million.
Thursday 24/09/2020
Lebanese President Michel Aoun (L) speaks with head of the caretaker government Hassan Diab during a meeting, September 24, in Baabda palace. (DPA)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun (L) speaks with head of the caretaker government Hassan Diab during a meeting, September 24, in Baabda palace. (DPA)

BEIRUT – Lebanon’s sectarian politicians have overshot one deadline they had agreed with France and missing more may jeopardise a French lifeline to haul the Middle East nation out of its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

France has drawn up a timeline for Lebanon to tackle corruption and deliver reforms to help secure billions of dollars in foreign aid to save a country drowning in debt.

But the leaders who oversaw years of wasted state spending and corruption have stumbled at the first hurdle by failing to deliver on a promise to French President Emmanuel Macron to form a new cabinet by mid-September.

Yet choosing a cabinet may prove to be the easy part. Once named, the ministers have a mountain of challenges, ranging from reviving a paralysed banking industry to fixing a power sector that cannot keep the lights on in a nation of about 6 million.

France on Wednesday urged international pressure on Lebanese politicians as frustration grows with the pace of transition and reform.

“The political forces have still not succeeded in agreeing to form a government,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a video-conference meeting on Lebanon on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

“Strong and convergent pressures are therefore needed from us to push Lebanese officials to respect their commitments,” he added.

“These convergent efforts must continue as long as necessary,” he said.

The meeting gathered members of the international support group for Lebanon, including UN chief Antonio Guterres, World Bank head David Malpass and world powers including France, Germany, Britain, Italy, the United States, Russia, China, the European Union and the Arab League.

Macron, who has visited the former French colony twice in the wake of a huge explosion on August 4, had repeatedly urged the Lebanese not to waste any more time in forming a government.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib is under pressure to form a fresh cabinet as soon as possible so it can undertake long-sought economic reforms.

But Adib’s efforts to form a government have been effectively blocked by the two main Shia groups in Lebanon’s usual power-sharing arrangement — Iran-backed Hezbollah and its political ally Amal.

The August 4 explosion of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port killed more than 190 people, wounded thousands and ravaged large parts of the capital.

The disaster sparked new protests over corruption and mismanagement, prompting the previous cabinet to step down.

France is counselling pragmatism to break through the impasse but it has limited room to manoeuvre.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are cautious about the French initiative as they are seeking to sideline Hezbollah, which is aligned with their enemy Iran.

France, however, said it enjoyed support from Italy, which agreed on the need for a new government to be installed quickly and undertake reforms.

“Without reforms, there will not be any international financial support. On the other hand, if they are put in place, we will spare no efforts,” Le Drian said.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, addressing the General Assembly, appealed for urgent assistance.

In addition to the port blast, Aoun said Lebanon was in “unprecedented crisis” from COVID-19 and the influx of displaced Syrians whose numbers now equal one-third of Lebanon’s population.

“Lebanon repeats its call on donor countries to honour their pledges and find a mechanism to follow up on their commitments,” Aoun said in a virtual address.

“The latter need to double their financial contributions and provide direct assistance to Lebanese governmental institutions and host communities.”

An international conference in Paris in April 2018 promised $11 billion for Lebanon, but on the condition of reforms that have yet to be put in place.

Aoun said Monday that Lebanon was headed to “hell” unless it could form a new cabinet.

Efforts gathered some steam Tuesday as Saad Hariri, a Sunni former prime minister, called for an independent Shia politician to run the finance ministry.

France hailed Hariri’s statement as “courageous.” A UN tribunal recently found a Hezbollah member guilty for the murder of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Observers believe Hezbollah and Amal are insisting on maintaining control of the finance ministry because the militant movements are facing pressure from US sanctions.

Hezbollah, whose political influence has grown, and Amal also view moves to shift them out of key cabinet posts as a bid to weaken their sway, politicians say.

They have a parliament majority with their Christian and other allies, although the cabinet dispute has put them at odds. Aoun, a Maronite Christian allied to Hezbollah, has said no sect should claim any ministry.