Egypt, Arab League seek to mediate in Lebanon’s Cabinet crisis

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The Daily Star –Hussein Dakroub

BEIRUT: Egypt and the Arab League will step in this week in an attempt to clear the way for the formation of a new government desperately needed to rescue Lebanon from total economic collapse and rebuild Beirut after last year’s deadly Beirut Port explosion, political sources said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Prime MInister-designate Saad Hariri, who returned from private visit to the United Arab Emirates, was told by Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon Monsignor Joseph Spiteri that Pope Francis would receive him in the Vatican on April 22, the state-run National News Agency reported. It said that Hariri’s itinerary also includes a meeting with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri is set to arrive in Beirut Wednesday carrying a message from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to President Michel Aoun dealing with ways to overcome difficulties blocking the formation of a new government in Lebanon, a political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

Yet, it is not immediately clear whether Shoukri ‘s visit to Beirut is part of an Egyptian initiative to resolve the deepening political and economic crisis, the source said.

“Shoukri’s visit reflects Egypt’s interest in the formation of a new government in Lebanon. Egyptian officials have long declared that they are interested in developments in Lebanon,” the source said, adding: “Sisi’s letter will definitely express support for Lebanon and reconciliation effort to form a new government.”

Shoukri is also set to hold talks with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri on ways to break the political stalemate that for nearly eight months has left Lebanon without a fully functioning government to tackle multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement.

During a meeting with Hariri in Cairo in February, Sisi called on rival Lebanese leaders to resolve their differences and accelerate the formation of an “independent” government capable of confronting challenges that are threatening the country’s stability.

Lebanon is in the throes of a crippling economic and financial crisis, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the 1975-90 Civil War. The Lebanese pound has been in a free fall since October 2019, losing over 90 percent of its value, pushing more than half of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty and unemployment.

Ahead of his trip to Beirut, Shoukri was expected to visit Paris Tuesday for talks with French officials on regional topics, including the Lebanese crisis, reflecting French-Egyptian coordination on the situation in Lebanon. Egypt was one of Arab countries that have supported the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crunch since the Civil War.

In what appeared to be a coordinated move with Shoukri’s visit, the Arab League’s deputy Secretary-General Hossam Zaki is slated to arrive here Thursday for talks with top Lebanese officials on the Cabinet crisis.

Zaki has visited Beirut in the past, offering the Arab League’s support to help Lebanon through its political and economic crisis.

“Zaki’s visit is intended to show the Arab League’s solidarity with Lebanon. Due to divisions in the Arab world, the Arab League is unable to launch initiatives now,” the same political source said.

The source recalled that during his previous visits to Beirut, Zaki had told Lebanese officials that the Arab League, if asked by Lebanon, was ready to help it out of its political and economic crisis.

Nida al-Watan newspaper Tuesday quoted diplomatic sources as saying that Shoukri would affirm to Lebanese officials Egypt’s support for the formation of a proposed 24-member government of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power granted to any side.

The suggested Cabinet of 24 ministers would be divided into three: Eight ministers for Aoun, eight ministers for Hariri and allies, and eight ministers for the Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies. This division will ensure that no side gains veto power, a major hurdle that has blocked for months Hariri’s attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists in line with the French initiative.

The proposed 24-memer Cabinet is in line with an initiative planned by Berri to break the deadlock.

The Egyptian and Arab League moves coincided with stepped up political activity aimed at facilitating the Cabinet formation.

The energetic activity reportedly could see French President Emmanuel Macron meeting MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, in Paris this week as part of French efforts to accelerate the government formation.

It also comes amid Hezbollah’s optimism about the government formation after two major hurdles — the size of the Cabinet and the blocking one-third [veto power] demand made by Aoun and his son-in-law, Bassil, have been overcome.

The most important of this activity is Bassil’s planned trip to Paris and his possible meeting with Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since the Aug. 4 Beirut Port blast that killed 210 people, injured thousands and left large swaths of the capital in ruins.

Media reports said that Macron, who presented a French reform road map in his meeting with Lebanese political leaders during his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1, 2020, would prod Bassil to facilitate the formation of a Cabinet of nonpartisan experts as stipulated in the French initiative.

Bassil, who heads the FPM’s 24-member Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest in Parliament with the biggest Christian representation, has been accused by French officials, as well as by Hariri and Future Movement officials of blocking the government formation with his tough conditions, including a demand for veto power.

Berri’s planned initiative comes against the backdrop of mounting foreign pressure on Lebanon’s leaders to agree on the rapid formation of a new government to deliver reforms deemed essential to unlocking billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.

Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmy Tuesday sounded optimistic about a solution to the Cabinet crisis.

“I am optimistic. The efforts of Patriarch Rai and the Parliament speaker’s proposals have opened a hole in the wall of sharp political differences,” Fahmy told reporters after a meeting with Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai in Bkirki, northeast of Beirut.

Fahmy, who said in an interview last month that the security situation in Lebanon had broken down because security forces were drained and unable to fulfill their duties as a result of the financial meltdown, said: “The situation now is under security control. There is a preemptive security action by all agencies at a distinctive level to prevent any [security] breakdown.”

 

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