Commentary

The French initiative is not enough

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri fist-bumping French Minister for Foreign and European Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian during their meeting in Beirut May 6, 2021. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra HO)

Visits by foreign dignitaries, special envoys, ambassadors have so far failed to score a breakthrough in the political impasse that gripped the country in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

The political crisis coupled with the economic collapse are threatening the core foundation of the Lebanon as an independent viable state.

Lebanon is facing the most severe crisis since the end of the Civil War in 1990. It has become evident that domestic players can’t come to terms on their own. The French foreign minister outcry “help us help you,” fell into deaf ears. If Lebanese political players had the capacity and desire to extend any sort of help, the country wouldn’t be in its current status.

Almost a year since its launching, the “French Initiative” proved to be a naïve approach to rescue Lebanon from its current quagmire.

Political factions in the country have mastered the blame game, emptied the French initiative from its main objective and lured Paris into the local political bickering. Otherwise how could a meeting sought by Paris between the prime minister-designate Saad Hariri and the head of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil help solve the problem. This is pure naïveté and an insult to those who were hoping the French effort would help produce a new political and credible class.

Lebanese political discourse is filled with slogans such as national reconciliation, coexistence, Taif Accord implementation and most recent one is the French Initiative. Supporting the French effort is now a talking point uttered by Lebanese political leaders to avoid being blamed for the miserable situation in the country.

France, which crafted the existing sectarian political system when modern Lebanon was created, should know better how to deal with the Lebanese debacle. The naïveté exhibited in guiding its efforts to rescue Lebanon, is not justified since most countries believe the French know Lebanon better than any foreign country.

Last week’s short visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian failed to score a breakthrough in trying to end the political stalemate. French hesitancy, threats and fluctuation encouraged those blocking the formation to form a Cabinet to stonewall and try to restore their political clout which was lost following the Oct. 17 riots.

The repeated reprimands and lectures by French leaders, didn’t have any significant impact on the numbed Lebanese political factions. Instead, they were emboldened when Paris seemed to be shifting its early tough talks and is willing to accommodate the concerns of President Michel Aoun and his political auxiliaries. It is not clear if the evolving French talks is the caused by regional developments and rapprochement among regional powers, mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia. Regional powers can certainly help the French initiative to become effective, especially if financial incentives were given to Lebanese factions to get them to compromise. During the Taif and Doha talks, some Lebanese participants received hefty sums of money in order to secure a happy ending to the talks. Incentives in the form of bribery proved to be an effective tool, given that the same faces are still deciding the future of the country.

If the fast spiraling down of the country continues, Lebanon is certainly headed toward a total meltdown, which would require a new founding conference and an updated political settlement in the sort of the Taif Accord. It is worth noting, that two main factions, Aoun and Hezbollah, were not part of the Taif Accord at the time. Despite their frequent statements that they abide by the terms of the accord, they have not shown any affinity toward it. Hezbollah considers the accord outdated since it doesn’t take into consideration the major demographic changes and its dominance of political life Lebanon into consideration. Aoun is not known to be fond of the Taif agreement since it led to his political exile and military defeat.

For the French effort to regain its credibility and seriousness, immediate steps must take place so that Lebanese factions and people can feel there is hope in it. Threatening with sanctions against those blocking the formation of the Cabinet didn’t get the detractors to yield.

The French efforts have recently managed to garner global support by Western powers and Russia, mainly with the new Biden administration, but the inconclusive trip by Le Drian dashed any hope of an imminent solution to the Cabinet debacle. Focusing on holding parliamentary election on time is crucial to restore credibility in the Lebanese democratic institutions, however, what’s needed now is a quick rescue plan to avoid the total collapse, disintegration and the death of a country under the watch of a French doctor. France took the lead early on, but so the lack of any progress indicates the need for more efforts by other influential players, mainly Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column to The Daily Star.

 

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