BEIRUT: French President Emmanuel Macron is sending his special envoy to Beirut for talks with top Lebanese leaders in the latest attempt to push for the formation of a new government desperately needed to enact reforms and rescue Lebanon from all-out economic collapse, an official source said Monday.
Patrick Durel, an adviser to Macron for Middle East and North Africa affairs, is due to arrive in Beirut Tuesday night.
Durel is set to hold talks Wednesday with President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri centering on ways to eliminate hurdles that for months have delayed the formation of a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to be tasked with carrying out a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of a crippling economic and financial crunch, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.
During a visit to Beirut last year, Durel had warned rival Lebanese leaders against the dire consequences of the failure to quickly form a new government to rescue the country which is wrestling with multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that is hitting the Lebanese hard and threatening them with poverty, hunger and unemployment.
Durel’s visit comes amid intensified US-French diplomatic activity aimed at pulling Lebanon out of its severe political and economic crisis.
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo met Monday with Saudi Ambassador Walid al-Bukhari at the Saudi Embassy in Beirut.
The three envoys discussed the “most important political developments that are happening in Lebanon and the region, in addition to issues of common interest,” said a terse statement released by the Saudi Embassy.
Shea, accompanied by Grillo, met with Bukhari for “diplomatic consultations - the latest in a series of trilateral engagements on the dire economic situation in Lebanon and how to most effectively support the Lebanese people,” the US Embassy in Beirut said in a tweet.
“The French diplomatic activity is divided in two sections: a humanitarian aid in which Grillo is working with Shea and Bukhari, and a political section which Durel will handle when he arrives in Beirut tomorrow [Tuesday],” the official source told The Daily Star.
MTV channel quoted French sources as saying that there was an “urgent need to exert pressure on Lebanon’s politicians for the formation of a government to avert a major security flare-up.”
The meeting with Bukhari came a few days after the US and French ambassadors held talks with officials at the Saudi Foreign Ministry in Riyadh last week centering on ways to help Lebanon out of its political and economic crises.
Shea and Grillo said in a joint statement Friday they had stressed in talks in Saudi Arabia the "desperate" need for a government in Lebanon that implements reform to rescue the country.
The diplomats' trip followed up on the trilateral meetings among U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud on June 29 in Matera, Italy on the margins of the G-20 conference.
The increased US-French coordination over Lebanon comes as the country is in the throes of a severe economic and financial crisis, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the 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.
Meanwhile, no progress has been made in behind-the-scene contacts to break a political stalemate that for nearly 11 months has left Lebanon without a fully functioning government to cope with a series of crises, including severe fuel, medicine, water and electricity shortages and a collapsing pound that are adding to the misery of the Lebanese.
This comes amid reports that Hariri would present Aoun this week with a new Cabinet lineup in a last-ditch attempt to resolve the crisis before deciding to step down.
An official source told The Daily Star Monday that Hariri had not yet requested an appointment for a meeting with Aoun.
Aoun and Hariri, who are constitutionally mainly responsible for the Cabinet formation, have not been on speaking terms since their last meeting at Baabda Palace on March 22 that failed to resolve their differences over the size and makeup of the government. Aoun has rejected Hariri’s first draft Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists presented to him on Dec. 9.
Future Movement officials have said that all options are on the table, including stepping down for Hariri, who has been struggling since Oct. 22 to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms and save the country.
A source close to Hariri confirmed reports that the premier-designate plans to visit Cairo Thursday for talks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on bilateral relations and the political and economic crises in Lebanon. Hariri had visited Cairo in February.
The planned visit to Cairo comes a few days after Hariri received a phone call from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in which he reiterated Moscow’s support for the formation of a new government in Lebanon headed by Hariri. Egypt also supports Hariri to head a new government in Lebanon.
Moscow has recently invited Hariri and several Lebanese politicians in a bid to narrow differences over the Cabinet formation that has been stalled for months as a result of a deepening rift between Aoun and Hariri over the naming of two Christian ministers and the distribution of key ministerial seats in a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to save the country.
Berri, whose latest initiative to break the Cabinet deadlock has been bogged down after it was rejected by Aoun and MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, lashed out at those obstructing the formation of a new government, and subsequently leading to Lebanon’s downfall.
“Bringing Lebanon down with the strikes of obstruction, plunging its institutions in fatal vacuum, persistence in political and constitutional messing and sacrificing the nation at the altar of personal hatred are an act tantamount to treason against Lebanon and the Lebanese,” Berri said in a statement on the 15th anniversary of Israel’s July 2006 aggression on Lebanon.
Berri’s proposal, which has been backed by Hariri and most of Lebanese parties, calls for the formation of a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third plus one (veto power) to any side.
Hariri and Future Movement MPs have long accused Bassil of blocking the government formation with his tough conditions, including his insistence on gaining veto power, something the premier-designate has vowed not to grant to any party.