Lebanon: The endless standoff 

Bassem Aly , Thursday 27 May 2021

The Aoun-Hariri standoff is preventing the formation of a government in Lebanon, writes Bassem Aly, but there is no end in sight

The endless standoff 

As time passes, a successful conclusion to Lebanon’s government-formation process looks increasingly implausible. The Sunni prime-minister designate, Saad Al-Hariri, and President Michel Aoun, a strong ally of the Shia Hizbullah, are seemingly unable to overcome their disagreements. 

On Saturday, Hariri accused Aoun of preventing the formation of a government that does not reflect his interests and demands. “For seven months, we have given the [prime minister]-designate an impossible task: either the government is formed as the president’s political team wants it, embodying his excellency’s will even as he claims he has no demands, or there is no government,” Hariri wrote on Twitter.

Lebanon’s Sunni leader also told the Lebanese parliament that “I will not form a government as the team of his excellency the president wants it, nor any other political faction. I will only form the kind of government required to prevent collapse and halt the big crash that is threatening the Lebanese people.”

This is not the first time Hariri has gone public to speak about the political deadlock. Two months ago, he left a meeting with Aoun and told reporters-who were waiting for him outside-that the latter wants him to approve a prearranged list of ministers. 

Hariri then described the move as unconstitutional. The prime minister- designate - also the son of former premier Rafik Al-Hariri and a former head of government himself - wants a technocratic government that includes ministers who are not affiliated to any political faction in Lebanon. He keeps accusing Aoun of seeking to control a third of the seats in government, a situation that would allow the president to block decisions he might not like. 

But Aoun seems to have understood - apparently by the virtue of time - that this kind of political pressure will not lead to a deal on a new government in Lebanon. For example, on 17 March, Aoun said: “If the prime minister-designate Hariri finds himself unable to form a government, he should make way for those who are... My call is determined and truthful to the prime minister-designate to choose immediately one of two choices, as silence is not an option after today,” Aoun said in a televised speech. 

He then rejected Hariri’s accusations of blocking consensus on the new cabinet. “There is no use in all such positions and blame-shifting if the country collapses and the people become prisoners of despair and frustration,” he said. “There is no escape for them but anger. Everything subsides before the people’s suffering, which has reached levels they cannot bear.”

Aoun told parliament in mid-May that Hariri could not form a government. This message came in a letter that Hariri himself did not like. Hariri told parliament - during the same session in which this letter was publicly read - that Aoun is implicitly telling lawmakers that “you have named this prime minister, I don’t want him, go ahead and rid me of him.”

This situation has arguably caused a degree of embarrassment for Aoun, whose allies quickly denied Hariri’s accusations. Nabih Berri, parliamentary speaker and also a key ally of Hizbullah, called Hariri to quickly form the government and cooperate with Aoun to help stabilise Lebanon. 

Gebral Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, a former top diplomat and leader of Lebanon’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), said Aoun does not want to remove Hariri from his position. 

This is not the first time Hariri faces tough times negotiating a new government with Hizbullah and its political allies. In October 2019, he resigned from his position as prime minister after reaching a “dead end” amid the “all means all” wave of protests against all political forces in Lebanon. 

By then, Hariri was trying to form a new government and conduct comprehensive reforms to reduce public anger in the midst of severe social and economic deterioration. But a political agreement was not reached. 

The ongoing political crisis in Lebanon started last October when Hariri was appointed prime minister-designate to replace Hasssan Diab, the caretaker premier, following Beirut’s port blast. The port blast led to the deaths of 200 people and the injury of 6,000. About 300,000 people lost their homes, and the Lebanese government is incapable of meeting its financial commitments or rebuilding damaged areas.

It needs an estimated $10 to $15 billion to carry out reconstruction. But a donors conference arranged by French President Emmanuel Macron collected only 253 million Euros ($298 million) in humanitarian aid. Most world leaders are reluctant to send money to Lebanon until a new government is in place. This has resulted in a huge economic crisis that, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, set off poverty-related protests and an enormous drop in the exchange rate.

France, a key mediator in Lebanon’s political crisis since the beginning, recently imposed sanctions on Lebanese officials who “hinder the way out of the crisis and we will do so in coordination with our international partners.”

Karim Makdisi, associate professor of political science at the American University in Beirut, told Al-Ahram Weekly “we all hope for some breakthrough”. Yet, he was not too optimistic about the expected outcome. 

“While we all hope some breakthrough will be forthcoming I doubt France will meet with the approval of other regional actors who are contributing to blocking political movement in Lebanon (in addition of course to the despicable lack of common decency and pure criminal negligence of our politicians) as part of some bizarre attempt to punish all Lebanese for the very existence of Hizbullah (and Aoun),” Makdisi concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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