BEIRUT: Sectarian tensions rose over the weekend as Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib’s attempts to form a new government hit a deadlock over who controls the Finance Ministry, marking time with no solution in sight, with the feuding parties sticking to their guns over a rotation of the four sovereign ministries.
The unyielding positions of the Shiite duo, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, which insist on retaining hold of the Finance Ministry, and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and three other ex-premiers, who staunchly reject this, are putting the country, already in the throes of the worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War, on a sectarian edge.
The two Sunni and Shiite sides’ intractable positions come amid mounting international pressure on Lebanon’s rival political leaders to accelerate the formation of a new government that can enact urgent reforms in line with French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to rescue Lebanon from a series of multiple crises.
Worse still, the lack of progress in Adib’s Cabinet formation efforts might eventually push him to step down, a development that would put Macron’s initiative in jeopardy.
“Behind-the-scenes contacts over the Cabinet formation over the weekend did not produce any tangible results due to the intransigent attitudes of both the Shiite duo and the four former premiers,” a political source familiar with the government formation process told The Daily Star Sunday.
“The failure to break the Cabinet formation deadlock raises the prospects of the prime minister-designate stepping down because he wants to enrage neither the Shiite sect nor the Sunni sect with his proposed Cabinet lineup,” the source said.
Adib said after meeting President Michel Aoun Thursday that he had delayed a decision to step down after his efforts to form a new government had been stalled by the dispute over which sect would helm the Finance Ministry. He said he agreed with Aoun to give more time for further consultations to resolve the rift over the Finance Ministry. The 15-day deadline set by Macron for the Cabinet formation during his visit to Beirut and meeting with Lebanese political leaders Sept. 1 expired Wednesday.
Since he was designated on Aug. 31 with a big parliamentary majority as prime minister, Adib has promised to form a small 14-member Cabinet comprised of specialists independent of political parties who can work on implementing important reforms to extract the country from the crippling economic and financial crisis, aggravated by last month’s deadly explosion in Beirut. His efforts are backed by France.
Implementation of the long-overdue key reforms is needed to unlock promised international aid to the country, avert a total economic collapse and cope with the grave consequences of the Aug. 4 explosion that devastated Beirut Port and left swaths of the capital in ruins. The blast, the biggest in Lebanon’s history and caused by the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrates, killed at least 192 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused losses worth billions of dollars.
Among ideas being broached to break the Cabinet impasse is one that calls for assigning the Finance Ministry to a Christian candidate since the Sunnis do not want a Shiite in this ministry, while the Shiite duo insists on retaining hold of it, the political source said.
Another proposal calls for the rival factions to agree on a competent candidate, regardless of his sect, to take the Finance portfolio, the source said.
A third option, which will definitely be rejected by the four former premiers, is for Amal and Hezbollah to present a list of Shiite candidates for the prime minister-designate to choose from for the Finance Ministry, the source added.
Hariri and ex-premiers Najib Mikati, Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam, who were behind Adib’s nomination for the premiership, underlined the importance of breaking the Cabinet deadlock in order to avert sectarian strife and the country’s economic collapse.
In a statement issued Saturday after their meeting late Friday evening at Hariri’s Downtown Beirut residence, they urged Adib to form the government as soon as possible.
“The initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron constitutes an important opportunity that must be fructified by speeding up the formation of the government, to keep Lebanon away from the collapse, seditions and evils threatening it,” the statement from Hariri’s media office said.
“France, whose president sensed the dangers surrounding Lebanon, thankfully provided support and assistance, and launched an integrated political initiative for a solution that was translated by designating Mustapha Adib to form a government,” the statement added.
The four ex-premiers urged Adib “to hold on to his full powers in terms of forming the government as soon as possible, in consultation with the president and according to the rules stipulated in the Constitution.”
Adib’s efforts to form a new government have been stymied with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, backed by Hezbollah, insisting that the Finance Ministry be excluded from Adib’s proposed shake-up of the leadership of the ministry along with that of the Defense, Interior and Foreign ministries.
The premier-designate is in favor of rotating the leadership of these ministries among the main sects, while Berri, the Amal Movement leader, is adamant that a Shiite should stay at the helm of the Finance Ministry. Berri dug his heels in against the proposed rotation after the US earlier this month sanctioned his top political aide former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil for aiding Hezbollah.
Representatives of Amal and Hezbollah have informed Adib that the two Shiite groups insisted on retaining hold on the Finance Ministry and also on naming the Shiite ministers in the new Cabinet, which runs contrary to the premier-designate’s proposed Cabinet lineup.
Macron Friday spoke by telephone with Aoun, Berri and Hariri in his latest bid to push for the swift formation of a new government.
France’s Foreign Ministry also urged Lebanon’s political forces to assume their responsibilities and immediately form a government under Adib.
The International Support Group for Lebanon joined France in urging Lebanese politicians to form a new government without delay.
“Lebanese leaders must act to address Lebanon’s many needs. The ISG therefore urges all Lebanese leaders to act decisively, in a spirit of responsibility and in prioritizing Lebanon’s national interest, and swiftly form an effective and credible government able to undertake essential reforms to meet the challenges facing Lebanon as well as the legitimate aspirations and needs expressed by the Lebanese people,” the group said in a statement issued Saturday.
The ISG brings together the United Nations and the governments of China, France, Germany, Italy, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, together with the European Union and the Arab League.
In addition to raising Sunni-Shiite tensions, the Cabinet crisis also sparked a war of words between the country’s top Christian and Shiite religious authorities.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai implicitly rebuked Amal and Hezbollah for insisting that the Shiite sect hold onto the Finance Ministry, saying that sects do not have the right to monopolize government ministries.
“In what capacity does a sect demand a specific ministry as if it owns it, obstructing the formation of the government until it gets what it wants. By doing this, it is causing political paralysis and economic, financial and living damage,” Rai said in his Sunday’s sermon. “What constitutional act allows the monopoly of a ministerial portfolio? We constitutionally, and not for sectarian reasons, reject the monopoly [of a ministerial portfolio].” Rai called on Adib to go ahead and form a government and “not to bow to conditions or step down.”
Rai’s remarks drew a rebuke from the Higher Shiite Islamic Council, which denounced the comments made by “a leading religious authority,” – a clear reference to the Maronite patriarch – against the Shiite sect.
Without naming him, the Shiite Council condemned in a statement Rai’s speech, saying it contained “sectarian incitement and stirs sentiments, distorts facts and attacks a sect that had offered the best of its youth and energies in the battle to liberate the entire nation and expel the Zionist and takfiri terrorists.”
“If we are demanding that the Shiite sect retain the Finance Ministry, we are doing so from the basis of our keenness on national partnership in executive authority,” the statement said.
“The policy of elimination, isolation and marginalization will not build a nation or establish a state … We have been demanding the abolition of political confessionalism and the adoption of citizenship as a criterion for political action in a just state based on equality in rights and duties, away from sectarian privileges.”
Source: The Daily Star