The Crisis of Forming the Government in Lebanon: Complexities and obstacles

Dr. Nizar Abdel-Kader | 27 May 2021

For eight months, Lebanon has been suffering from an intense governmental crisis, and it does not seem that it would be easily solved in the light of the deep divisions between the various political actors, despite the severity of the economic and living crisis facing the Lebanese people.[1] International and Arab efforts have failed to overcome the obstacles facing the government formation, just as the efforts of the Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rai have failed to find a common ground between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.

This paper sheds light on the complexities of the crisis of forming the Lebanese government, its developments, its main obstacles, and the options available to its designated head for the success and adoption of his composition.

Background

The current crisis began after the resignation of the Hariri government following the outbreak of a massive popular uprising on 17 October 2019, in protest against a decision to increase fees for cell phone services, and in the light of a state of popular discontent over the state of economic and social distress. More than three months after the Hariri government’s resignation, President Aoun's era succeeded in forming a "reformist" government headed by Dr. Hassan Diab, with the membership of people from outside the political class, who were chosen by the parties and parliamentary blocs.

However, the opposition parties and blocs considered Diab's government to be one-coloured and controlled by Hezbollah, and the masses of the uprising faced it with rejection, and demanded its overthrow. The threat of the novel coronavirus was not enough to stop the demonstrations and protests against the government. The opposition parties gave the government a chance, but soon returned to raise their discontented voice regarding the performance of the government and the Presidency of the Republic, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) behind them.[2]

In fact, Diab's government failed to fulfill any of its pledges. It also failed to control the economic and monetary situation, even as the exchange rate of the pound (lira) against the dollar touched the threshold of 15,000 pounds. The Prime Minister had faced a wave of criticism and ridicule when he announced that his government had fulfilled 96 percent of its promises.[3]

Subsequently, the Diab government was forced to resign after it was surprised by the devastating explosion in the Beirut port, on 4 August 2020, which caused the death of 204 citizens and injured 6,000 others, in addition to the destruction of nearly a third of the city of Beirut. Everyone is aware that the resignation of the Diab government came under pressure from the street, which also demands the resignation of the President of the Republic.[4]

The French Initiative

After the Beirut port explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron realised the seriousness of the situation in Lebanon, so he decided to visit Beirut, listened to the affected people, and promised to help them. He followed his first visit with a second visit in September 2020, where he launched an initiative to save Lebanon from its crisis, after meeting at the French Embassy with representatives of the political forces and calling on them to form a reformist government that would open the way for an influx of international and Arab loans and aid towards Lebanon.

In his initiative, Macron bet that the country's political leaders would adhere to the standard of forming a government of competent and independent people, and support the reforms formulated by the French diplomacy during Macron's second visit in early September 2020, to participate in the first centenary celebrations of the foundation of the Greater Lebanon state. Macron also bet on forming a government headed by Ambassador Mustapha Adib within 15 days, based on the promises made by the leaders he met at the Pine Palace, and thus the start of the implementation of the required reforms within an eight-week period. Macron was clear in warning politicians against failure to facilitate the implementation of the French "road map", which he said would turn into the ministerial statement of the government, despite his assertion that he "did not come here to impose any warning or alert to any party".

It stands to reason that saving Lebanon from its political and economic impasse, and from the effects of the disaster of the Port explosion on 4 August 2020, has become dependent on the formation of a reformist government and the rational decisions that it would take. In its initiative, France brought together all the reforms that were agreed upon at the Cedar Conference held in 2018, which include: reforms in the electricity sector, reform of the banking system, independence of the judiciary, auditing the accounts of the Banque du Liban, and an end to corruption in politics and administration. Macron had implied in his speech that his initiative won US approval, that there was no Iranian opposition to it, and that the formation of the government was a Lebanese affair.[5] The Lebanisation factor emerged through the selection of Ambassador Mustapha Adib, with the consent of Saad Hariri, and the recommendation of Najib Mikati. However, Adib's attempt to form a government of technocrats was unsuccessful, so he excused himself from the assignment and returned to his embassy in Berlin.

The designation of Hariri and the impasse

Before the start of the "mandatory parliamentary consultations", Lebanese President Michel Aoun showed his resentment against and reluctance to assigning Saad Hariri to form the government. Aoun announced that the consultations would be delayed for a period of one week, even as he advised Members of Parliament (MPs) not to name Hariri. However, he assigned him to form the government at the end of October 2020, based on the results of the "mandatory parliamentary consultations". At the time, the political circles expected that Hariri would face a difficult task in light of the negative positions shown by Aoun and the FPM leader Gebran Bassil.

After accepting the mandate, Hariri announced that he would seek to form a government of independent technocrats that would "implement the economic, financial and administrative reforms contained in the Macron Initiative", which the main blocs in Parliament had committed themselves to supporting the government in their implementation.[6] Hariri won 65 votes in the consultations, while 53 MPs declined to name him, including the FPM and Lebanese Forces MPs. It was noteworthy that Aoun called on the MPs to shoulder their responsibilities and to think about "the effects of this designation on the formation, reform projects and international rescue initiatives".[7] The remarks of the Lebanese President were a clear indication that the country is heading towards a government vacuum that could last for many months.

Hariri's designation came in light of political pressure by President Macron who, on 27 September 2020, granted the political forces a grace period of "four to six weeks" to form a "mission government" of independent technocrats, while accusing the political class of "collective treason".

The political climate witnessed a state of suspicion and ambiguity, especially through the attempts of President Aoun and his movement to impose their standards on the Prime Minister-designate, starting with the Aounist novelty in pursuit of the "composition before designation". The demands of President Aoun and his movement to nominate the Christian ministers, in addition to assigning them the "blocking third" within the Council of Ministers so that they would be capable of controlling the decisions of the Council and the fate of the government, constituted an obstacle to the formation of the expected government.[8] It was natural for Prime Minister Hariri to reject those dictations, and to stick to the principle of an independent government of 18 ministers.

The efforts to form the government entered their seventh month without any sign of a breakthrough in the issues that delayed the birth of the government. All the French efforts ended in failure, and the efforts led by Patriarch Bechara al-Rai were unable to push President Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Hariri to adopt dialogue to untangle the government formation. Through his contacts, Patriarch al-Rahi had succeeded in breaking the existing boycott between the two men since Hariri presented his government formation. Indeed, Hariri accepted to visit the Baabda Palace in a new attempt to form the government, but Aoun deliberately prevented his success by sending a list of the ministries to be distributed among the sects and political forces, which was considered by Hariri an open attempt by Aoun to impose a government formation that secures the assumption by the FPM of the blocking third and the important ministries. The visit did take place, but it ended with the delivery by Hariri from the Republican Palace of a statement explaining the failure of the meeting and the causes thereof, and opening the door for a new break.[9]

Failure of the initiatives and the Bassil complex

The crisis of the government formation in Lebanon remains unresolved, while severe debates continue. The diplomatic efforts expanded to include a visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League Ambassador Hossam Zaki to Beirut in the first week of April 2021, but to no avail. Both have failed to make any breakthrough in the deadlock. The visit of the two Arab diplomats was followed by the visit of the US Under Secretary of State David Hale, but the visit did not carry anything new that reflected positively on the path of forming the government. It succeeded, however, in the return of the talks to demarcate the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel.

In light of the escalation taking place, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri put forward an initiative that was supported by Cairo, based on a proposal to form a government of 24 ministers. However, Berri’s initiative was not successful, and the debate was then resumed. The political body of the FPM said that “there is no longer any doubt that the Prime Minister-designate is seeking to delay the formation of the government. This comes in the context of his thwarting of the French endeavour, and by seeking to obtain half of the cabinet members + one”. The Future Movement, headed by Hariri, responded that "the leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement suffers from a state of confusion and political denial at its worst stages. It is acting as a ruling party that seizes the signature of the Presidency of the Republic regarding the formation of the government". Bassil and his movement leaked information about French arrangements to bring Bassil together with Hariri, but the latter thwarted this effort, adhering to a government consisting of 18 ministers from the technocrats, and rejecting any talk about a blocking third or Bassil’s retention of the important ministries that he obtained in Diab's government.

This clash between the Future Movement and the FPM comes in light of the implicit support for Bassil by Hezbollah. Reports link the formation of the government to the success of the US-Iranian negotiations and, consequently, the lifting of the US sanctions on Tehran.[10]

After the fall of Berri's initiative, all the mediation endeavours between Aoun and Bassil on the one hand and Hariri on the other hand stopped, until the latest visit of the French Foreign Minister Le Drian, on 6 May 2021, which did not lead to any results.[11] On the eve of his visit to Lebanon, Le Drian stated that "those who obstruct the formation of the government would be dealt with firmly. We have taken national measures, and this is only the beginning". After the Aoun-Le Drian meeting, the Lebanese Presidency stated that Aoun assured the French minister that there is a top priority to form a new government that enjoys the confidence of Parliament, and that he will make efforts to remove all internal and external obstacles. However, as usual, Aoun’s statements remained mere words.

In conjunction with Le Drian's visit, sources close to Hariri talked about the possibility that the latter would excuse himself from forming the government, which he wants as a government of competencies, which was not approved by President Aoun, his son-in-law Bassil, and the Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. Thus, Le Drian left Beirut, and the political vacuum remained unchanged, to the disappointment of the Lebanese, after the media considered that the French Initiative had died, with most observers convinced of the ineffectiveness of any sanctions that France might impose on the politicians obstructing the formation of the government.[12]

Obstacles to forming the government

Seven months have passed since Hariri was designated on 22 October 2020. His mission is still faltering, despite the deteriorating economic, financial and living conditions. So much so that the Lebanese people are at the "door to hell" with which President Michel Aoun threatened them months ago. The issue of formation is surrounded by a state of uncertainty and ambiguity after the recent visit of the French foreign minister. The most prominent obstacles that pushed the crisis into stalemate are summarised as follows:

  1. Gebran Bassil's complex, which is reflected in his ambition to control the government situation by securing the "blocking third", in preparation for achieving his goal of attaining the Presidency in 2022. Bassil is fighting this battle without paying attention to the dangers that obstructing the formation of the government is causing to Lebanon's political future. President Aoun adopts the battle of Bassil under the slogan "Gebran or chaos".
  2. Hezbollah’s domination of the Lebanese situation by the force of its weapons, and through its possession of the parliamentary majority consisting of 72 MPs from its bloc and allied blocs. Although its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared his adherence to Hariri’s formation of the government, he supported Bassil's positions to disrupt the formation, by calling for a political government capable of bearing the greatest responsibility, regardless of his recent statements about his support for Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s mediation between Aoun and Hariri “to overcome obstacles to the formation process".
  3. President Aoun’s desire to deviate from the Taif Constitution, and to exercise the role of the "strong President" who seeks by practice rather than by the constitutional text to restore the powers of the President of the Republic that were enshrined in the Constitution of the First Republic.
  4. Political divisions and the overall state of corruption, and the ensuing conflict between the interests of the political class and bank owners and any reform project that the government can undertake, given the possible criminal scrutiny and prosecution of the corrupt that this may entail.
  5. External pressure, given that it is possible to refer to US pressure to prevent the participation of Hezbollah in the government formation, in addition to imposing US sanctions against Bassil and the two ministers Ali Hassan Khalil from Amal and Youssef Fenianos from the Al-Marada Movement, on charges of corruption. There is also the Iranian pressure through Hezbollah, in order to keep Lebanon as a pressure card that Iran would use in the negotiations over its nuclear programme and Washington’s return thereto in exchange for the abolition of US sanctions against Iran.[13] It is also necessary to point out the sensitivity raised by the French support for the Prime Minister-designate to Aoun and Bassil, which pushes them forcefully to obstruct the formation of a mission government.
  6. The sectarian system in Lebanon, which is being used by Aoun and Bassil under the pretext of defending "the rights of Christians". This prompted the Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi to say in a church sermon, "We do not want to defend the rights of Christians, but rather we want to defend the rights of all the Lebanese". It appears that Pope Francis also repeated this when he met Hariri.

Hariri’s options

Seven months after Hariri was designated, a question arises forcefully: will Hariri pursue his assignment and make more efforts to create the government formula that Aoun agrees with? Or will he reach a final conviction of the impossibility of agreeing on a common formula, so he decides to excuse himself, opening the door to new parliamentary consultations?

After the leaks subsided regarding the possibility of Hariri excusing himself from the designation, and following the end of Le Drian's visit, the formation process appears to have returned to square one. It is also striking that Gebran Bassil’s visit to the Russian capital Moscow did not succeed in breaking the ice between him and Hariri. Thus, the most important question remains about the open options to end the crisis, as follows:

First option: the atmosphere of the Presidential Palace indicates the possibility of reviving Hassan Diab's resigned government. Several attempts were made to convince Diab to hold a cabinet session, but they were unsuccessful. A number of experts believe that these are desperate attempts that aim to push Hariri to excuse himself, and indicate the depth of the crisis in which the Era and its movement are struggling. Diab's positions confirm that he continues to run the caretaker government in the narrow sense.[14]

Second option: Hariri would excuse himself from forming the government. This is a dramatic step that could lead to major damage to Hariri's political position and affect his survival as the most prominent Sunni leader in Lebanon. Such an option could have been adopted had the favourable regional conditions existed for Hariri and his political movement. However, it is not plausible to envision Hariri taking this step, given the continuing international and regional powers supporting his designation.

Third option: in response to the dangers of repeating President Aoun's adventure that he had carried out in 1988 when he was assigned to head a transitional government that would facilitate the election of a president to succeed President Amin Gemayel, as he disrupted the elections and declared a state of disobedience in the Republican Palace until he was expelled and fled to the French embassy and from there to Paris. A glimpse of hope may emerge that some internal initiatives (especially those carried out by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri) would succeed, coupled with the French Initiative to put forward a new government formula that would open the door for a political dialogue that ends with a minimal consensus between Aoun and Hariri, while preserving the form of a technocrats’ government.

Eventually, it is hoped that efforts would be made to achieve the third option in order to avoid a major political crisis in Lebanon, which may lead to a vacuum in the presidency and prevent reliable parliamentary elections for the replacement of the corrupt political class.

General conclusions

At the end of this paper, several general conclusions can be drawn, the most prominent of which are the following:

  • Most of the internal and external forces link the reasons impeding the formation of the government to the insistence by President Aoun and his political movement to obtain the blocking third, although Aoun denies it, not to mention the relentless pursuit of the political rehabilitation of Gebran Bassil (the President's son-in-law), in preparation for the abolition of the US sanctions imposed on him, and thus support his battle for the presidency in 2022. However, the government impasse seems likely to continue for a long period that may extend to the end of the era.
  • The statements made by Pope Francis and most Western capitals, along with the statements of the Maronite Patriarch, reflected the extent of concern about the continuation of the governmental impasse in Lebanon, with continued support for Hariri's efforts to form a mission government capable of implementing the French Initiative. This support is likely to continue while stimulating the Lebanese forces that obstruct the formation of the government to shoulder their rescue responsibilities.
  • The Aoun-Bassil duo, with the apparent support of Hezbollah, is likely to continue to obstruct Prime Minister-designate Hariri's efforts to form a government. The latest efforts seem to have been Bassil's visit to Moscow and the personal message to Macron that Aoun delivered to French Ambassador Anne Gryu recently. All this confirms the persistence of the "Bassil complex," which raises the slogan "Bassil or chaos and hell".[15]
  • In light of the persistent stubbornness by President Aoun and Bassil to form a government whose decisions and fate they would control through the "blocking third", and with Hariri's insistence on forming an independent government of technocrats, things seem to be moving towards the continuation of the current political impasse, so that the Era would remain without an effective government until it ends in 2022 with serious questions raised about the possibility of Aoun’s disobedience in Baabda Palace, similar to what he did between 1988 and 1990.
  • Lebanon and its people are exposed to threats and dangers they have never faced before, even in the most difficult periods of the Civil War, even as the biggest winner from the deepening of the crisis would be Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor.

References

[1] "Lebanon: a country in free-fall", The Economist, 11 Aug 2020. https://www.economist.com/1843/2020/08/11/lebanon-a-country-in-free-fall. See also: Wael Taleb, "Lebanon PM struggles to form cabinet amid economic crisis," Al-Monitor, November 25, 2020. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/11/lebanon-government-formation-stall-french-initiative.html

[2] “Diab’s government: Popular and partisan protests and accusations of failure”, Al-Ain News, 17 April 2020. Available at: https://al-ain.com/article/lebanon-government-protests-consensus-failure

[3] Zulfiqar Qubaisi, “The figures of the economic and financial crisis are more eloquent than the online platform”, Al-Liwaa, 26 April 2021.

[4] Khairallah Khairallah, “The failure of an era, not the failure of a Lebanese government”, Middle East Online, 12 August 2020.

[5] Walid Choucair, “Macron’s initiative: the internationalisation of the Lebanon crisis with US consent and Iranian flexibility”, Independent Arabia, 3 September 2020.

[6] “Saad Hariri designated to form the new Lebanese government”, Al-Hurra, 22 October 2020. Available at: https://arbne.ws/3bSsMyc

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rhea Chartouni, “Three reasons behind the "ambiguity" of the formation of the Lebanese government”, Anadolu Agency, 1 December 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3uhQomx

[9] “The Baabda meeting: utter failure”, Nida al-Watan, 27 April 2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/3um0rHb

[10] “Lebanon’s crisis: Controversy and accusations between Hariri and Bassil”, Al-Ain News, 10 April 2021. Available at: https://al-ain.com/article/-67

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Lebanon: Will France succeed in solving the dilemma of forming the Lebanese government?”, BBC Arabic, 6 May 2021. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/arabic/interactivity-57016338

[13] Rhea Chartouni, “Three reasons behind the "ambiguity" of the formation of the Lebanese government”, op. cit.

[14] “One month after he was appointed to form a government: What are Saad Hariri's options? Al-Alam TV, 13 November 2020.

[15] Nizar Abdel-Kader, “The Bassil complex and the fall of the Republic”, editorial of Lebanese newspaper Al-Liwa, 12 May 2021.

 

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