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Lebanon crisis

Lebanon poised for prolonged presidential vacuum

Published: Updated:

Lebanon appears to be heading for a prolonged cabinet deadlock that will hinder the timely election of a new president and plunge the crises-ridden country into a governmental vacuum, officials and political analysts have warned.

The warning comes after caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati was designated by President Michel Aoun on June 23 to form a new government to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises. Addressing the three-year economic meltdown that is threatening to push the country’s population into poverty is a priority.

Trouble ahead

“There is a major problem facing the cabinet formation process. This makes it difficult [for Mikati] to succeed in forming a new cabinet during the short period left from President Michel Aoun’s term,” former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Al Arabiya English.

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Aoun’s six-year mandate ends on October 31 and the newly elected parliament under the constitution must start convening at least two months before the expiry of his term to choose a successor.

Siniora, politicians and lawmakers from both sides of the political divide assert that Mikati will not form a new cabinet given the divisions among parliamentary groups. Mikati’s designation and the shape and role of the government are major issues.

Terms and conditions demanded by different parties, and mainly by the Free Patriotic Movement headed by MP Gebran Bassil is making the creation of the cabinet difficult. Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, has been accused in the past of stalling cabinet formation for months with his tough conditions.

Asked about whether the slim support Mikati gained from parliament –
Only 54 MPs out of the 128-member legislature voted for Mikati will make it problematic to appoint a prime minister, and will delay the cabinet formation, Siniora said.

“The designation of Prime Minister Mikati will go through hard and difficult labor. There is a big difficulty in reaching an agreement among various groups on the cabinet formation given the conflicting viewpoints between the MPs who voted for Mikati’s designation and those who did not name him,” Siniora explained. “The country is heading for an open-ended cabinet formation crisis.”

Siniora, a former MP who did not run in the May 15 elections, also warned that the lack of consensus among the key parliamentary blocs on a candidate to succeed Aoun stoked fears that the country would plunge into a presidential vacuum like one that preceded the election of Aoun on Oct. 31, 2016.

Lebanon: Elections
Lebanon: Elections

A boycott by MPs from the FPM, founded by Aoun, and its ally, the militant Hezbollah group, prevented a quorum in parliament that left the country without a president for more than two years.

Time draws nigh

Siniora recalled that during the last 12 years, the average time needed to form a new government was not less than six months. “I think there is no chance to form a new government within four months. Things become more difficult amid the uncertainty in which we are living,” he said.

The new cabinet will only last a few months, as parliament is set to elect a successor to Aoun. The next president will then name a new premier.

Mikati’s current 24-member cabinet of nonpartisan specialists became a caretaker government after the May 15 elections in which Hezbollah and its allies lost the majority they had held since 2018. It was formed on Sept. 10, 2021, ending a political stalemate that left the country without a fully functioning government for 13 months.

A professor of economics and international relations also sounded pessimistic, predicting a prolonged cabinet crisis along with a presidential void in the absence of “a package deal” among political adversaries.

“The cabinet formation and the presidential election have intermingled with each other, and so have the agendas of local and external players. Therefore, the country is in need of a package deal to overcome its crisis,” Dr. Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Universite St. Joseph in Beirut, told Al Arabiya English.

Nader said every cabinet formation or presidential election is “turning into a ruling system crisis due to the breach of the constitution and the social contract because the country is vulnerable to the region’s struggles.”

He pointed out that following the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 Civil War and stipulated equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians, the country has been run by “three heads”, a reference to the president, the prime minister and the parliament speaker.

“This situation needed a controller from abroad. Syria had played that role [for nearly three decades] and later Hezbollah became the de facto controller,” said Nader, also the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a Beirut-based think tank. “Now, the cabinet formation needs two [the president and the premier-designate] to agree in order for the cabinet to approved assuming that the third [parliament speaker] does not put a veto.”

Too many political divisions

Although Lebanon’s rival leaders had reached consensus in the past to facilitate cabinet formation and the presidential election, Nader stated: “Consensus has now become impossible amid the deep divisions and the multiplicity of agendas.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said that the problem of forming a cabinet will make it difficult to do over the short period left from President Michel Aoun’s term. (File photo)
Speaking to Al Arabiya English, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said that the problem of forming a cabinet will make it difficult to do over the short period left from President Michel Aoun’s term. (File photo)

“That’s why every event [cabinet formation or presidential vote] needs a push from abroad. But today external powers are preoccupied with their own problems, and no one is free to help Lebanon,” Nader said. “France, which had undertaken an initiative two years ago to resolve the Lebanese crisis [following the August 4, 2020, Beirut port explosion], is today busy with its elections,” he added.

“I don’t see the formation of a new cabinet before the presidential election. This matter has become clear to everyone, including the premier-designate,” Nader said.

Nader noted that breaking the deadlock over the cabinet formation and the election of a new president requires “foreign pressure and an initiative from abroad to reach a compromise that will facilitate a package deal” among the opposing factions.

Assessing the chances of electing a new president on time, given the absence of local and regional consensus on a candidate to succeed Aoun, Nader said: “I see a presidential vacuum that could be prolonged until a compromise is concluded. But this time there is a very pressuring factor: The economic situation which might undermine all the components of the state unless it is tackled quickly. That’s why the Lebanese state won’t survive the presidential vacuum.”

More than three weeks since Mikati was designated to form a new government, all signs indicate that the cabinet formation process is encountering major hurdles as a result of conditions and counter-conditions between the premier-designate and Aoun.

A few days after his designation, Mikati, a billionaire tycoon named PM for the fourth time, presented Aoun with a cabinet lineup based on his outgoing cabinet team, changing only the names of five ministers. The modified formula would assign the much-coveted Energy Ministry that has been held by the FPM for more than 12 years to a Sunni Muslim loyal to Mikati.

Although it has not been rejected outright by Aoun, Mikati’s proposed cabinet formula drew fire from the FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc lawmakers, who accused the PM-designate of stalling on the cabinet formation and seeking to keep the caretaker government in power until the end of the president’s term.

No end in sight

During meetings held by Aoun and Mikati to discuss the cabinet formation, the president was reported to have proposed the formation of a 30-member cabinet including representatives of political parties. This proposal was rejected by Mikati who insisted on retaining the caretaker cabinet with a minor reshuffle because the time left until the end of Aoun’s term is short.

Perhaps the toughest stance against Mikati came from Bassil whose FPM’s 18-member parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc did not name Mikati to form a new cabinet.

“Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati does not want to form a new cabinet. He has admitted this in front of all the ministers before his designation. He is looking for constitutional fatwas to refloat the caretaker cabinet,” Bassil said in a video aired on local television on July 13.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati gestures during a news conference on the latest developments in the country, at the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon December 28, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati gestures during a news conference on the latest developments in the country, at the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon December 28, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Political analyst Youssef Diab also ruled out the possibility of forming a new cabinet soon, citing political differences between the premier-designate and Aoun and tough conditions set by Bassil. He said that the lack of local, regional and international consensus on the election of a new president threatens to plunge Lebanon into a prolonged presidential stalemate.

“The cabinet crisis is linked to the current political crisis which stems from conflicting ideas and opinions between the premier-designate on the one hand, and President Michel Aoun and his political team [the FPM} on the other. It is clear that Gebran Bassil wants to set up a cabinet before the end of his father-in-law’s term capable of running the country during the presidential vacuum according to his political vision,” Diab told Al Arabiya English.

Little room for change

Diab said Bassil is pushing for a government that would pledge to do many things, including the dismissal of Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, possibly the sacking of Army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun, and carry out security, military, judicial and diplomatic appointments to bring in “Bassil’s loyalists so that he can tighten his grip on the official administrations and institutions after the end of Aoun’s mandate.”

“Bassil has declared that this is his goal. Of course, Mikati will not accept to grant Aoun in the last two months of his term things to refloat Bassil for the coming six years,” Diab said. “This is the main reason that a new cabinet will not be formed because an agreement between Aoun and Mikati is difficult.”

Diab predicted a presidential vacuum due to the lack of local and regional consensus on a new head of state. “The presidential election issue is totally blocked because so far there is no internal agreement on a new president, especially the [May 15] parliamentary elections did not give any side a majority that would be decisive in the presidential election. Therefore, we need an internal consensus, but this consensus is not secured,” Diab said.

“Hezbollah and its allies are unable to secure a majority in parliament to elect their candidate as president. Similarly, the opposition forces are not united on a single candidate for the presidency,” he said.

He explained that the election of a president in Lebanon is not merely an internal Lebanese decision. “There should be a regional and international approval of the personality of the presidential candidate, his charisma, his regional and international relations and his political conduct in the past,” Diab said.

Citing wars and tensions in the region, including the “difficult” US-Iran negotiations on the latter’s nuclear program, Diab said: “So far, the circumstances are not conducive for the election of a president in Lebanon.”

The cabinet crisis comes as Lebanon is wrestling with a financial downturn, caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement, and a crashing currency that has lost more than 90 percent of its value since 2019.

Over 80 percent of Lebanon’s six million population lie below the poverty line and prices of food supplies and basic commodities have skyrocketed. The economic crisis has been described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, posing the gravest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the civil war.

Soon after his designation, Mikati urged rival politicians to set aside differences to secure a deal with the International Monetary Fund which he said was the only chance to rescue the debt-ridden country from financial collapse.

"We are facing the challenge of either complete collapse or gradual salvation," said Mikati, referring to the IMF deal that promises $3 billion of support, contingent on long overdue reforms that have long been delayed by Lebanon's bickering political elite.

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