Lebanese rivalries hinder cabinet formation on eve of deadline

Reuters , Monday 14 Sep 2020

A delay could present an early blow to a French effort to secure agreement on reforms to root out corruption in Lebanon in exchange for foreign aid

Designated Prime Minister Mustapha Adib, meet with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun and Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon August 31, 2020. REUTERS

Lebanon's factional rivalries put the brakes on moves to form a new government on Monday on the eve of a deadline agreed with France, stalling efforts to drag the nation out of a dire economic crisis.

Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib met President Michel Aoun for talks after two leading politicians objected to the way Adib was forming the cabinet. Political sources said he did not hand over a list of ministerial names as had been anticipated.

A delay could present an early blow to a French effort to secure agreement from fractious politicians on reforms to root out corruption in exchange for foreign aid, vital to lifting Lebanon out of its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

President Emmanuel Macron said on Sept. 1, during a visit to Beirut in the wake of a devastating Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, that Lebanese politicians had agreed to form a cabinet in 15 days, an ambitious timeline given it usually takes months.

An official in France's presidential palace said "15 days means tomorrow", or Tuesday. "The parties still have to fall into line," the Elysee official said.

After meeting Aoun, Lebanon's prime minister-designate told reporters: "God willing, all will be well."

Sources with knowledge of the meeting said Adib told the Lebanese president he would return in a few days while Aoun consulted with various factions.

Shi'ite and Christian parties voiced objections on Sunday to the way the Sunni prime minister-designate was trying to form the government without the traditional consultations.

Adib, named on Aug. 31 after Macron's intervention just before his Beirut visit, has been working to form a cabinet of experts and plans to overhaul the leadership of ministries controlled by the same factions for years, sources say.

Nabih Berri, the prominent Shi'ite parliament speaker and ally of Iran-backed Hezbollah, said his group would not join a government formed on the terms now proposed. But he said his group would cooperate in efforts to stabilise Lebanon.

There has been little comment from Hezbollah, the heavily armed and politically powerful movement Washington deems a terrorist group but which Paris says has a legitimate political role.

Any boycott by Berri and Hezbollah would deny the cabinet broad Shi'ite 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, adding that if he 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 Shi'ite chosen by him since 2014. The minister will have a crucial role in drawing up Lebanon's economic rescue plan.

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

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