Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib headed to the Presidential Palace at noon on September 14, 2020, supposedly to deliver his cabinet line-up to President Michel Aoun. He had been parachuted to the job earlier this month, ahead of a high-profile visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Lebanon.
The French president had given him a fifteen-day deadline to form a cabinet, which Adib had promised to respect. His meeting with Aoun ended in failure, however, as political parties were unable to agree on the distribution of seats. This is an open-ended conflict with no end in sight which might prompt Mustapha Adib to step down shortly, declaring failure.
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Apart from the verbal promise that he gave to Macron, there is no constitutional deadline that forces Adib to form a cabinet anytime soon. His predecessor Hassan Diab did it in 44 days, but it took ex-premier Tammam Salam 10-months to form a government, back in 2013.
Adib, a former ambassador to Germany, was supposed to succeed much quicker than that. He had the support of all the main political parties, including Hezbollah and Amal. Also supporting him were former premiers Saad Al Hariri and Najib Mikati, who is considered Adib’s patron.
This gave the new premier an advantage of being able to pick and chose from all parties (both pro-West and Iran-backed).
The Macron Initiative
During his back-to-back visits to Lebanon in August and September, President Macron was focused on power-sharing between the major political parties. His Lebanon agenda included reforms in the electricity and banking sectors, which are both in meltdown, in addition to the rehabilitation of schools and accountability for the Beirut port explosion.
Speaking to Lebanese leaders earlier this month, Macron made it clear that there should be no single post that is held exclusively by one party/sect, calling for a rotation of power at the executive branch, hoping that this would make all parties/sects share responsibility in state-building and reconstruction.
This means that the Ministry of Interior would not remain in the hands of Sunni Muslims or specifically, with the Future Movement of Saad Al Hariri, and that the finance would not be in the hands of the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Both have been in control of these portfolios for an entire decade.
Berri has made it clear, however, that if he doesn’t get the finance ministry, then he won’t be joining the Adib government. Adding complication is the position of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Gibran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Aoun.
Bassil added that he will only relinquish his claim to the portfolios of foreign affairs and energy if Berri abandons the Ministry of Finance. If Adib ignores the speaker and gives finance to an independent, then Berri will veto any cabinet line-up through the chamber of deputies, where he commands a powerful block of 17 MPs.
And if he bends to Berri’s demands, then he would face a backlash from the Aounists, who control the largest bloc in parliament, a total of 29 seats.
But this also means that Hezbollah has to share the ministry of health with other parties, although the party wanted to keep it for itself in the new government, citing the good work of outgoing minister Hamad Hasan, especially when it came to combating Covid-19.
For his part, Adib had promised a cabinet of technocrats, where ministers are chosen for their education rather than their political affiliation. He sees this as a soft landing that can accommodate everybody’s demands and interests. He seeks only two posts for himself, one being that of deputy prime minister, to which he wants to appoint either Joe Saada, a Greek Orthodox financial expert, or Joe Khoury, a former adviser to his ex-boss Najib Mikati.
Hezbollah is nevertheless calling for a “techno-political” government made up of 14 ministers, rather than 20-24. Two-thirds of it will go to technocrats that the prime minister will get to name, while one third will be allocated to the political parties.
Adib is desperately trying to keep the following portfolios with technocrats, away from the political parties: energy, finance, foreign affairs, and interior. This is mainly to prevent Gibran Basil from making claim to the foreign ministry, which he held during the years 2016-2019. Adib argues that Basil does not fit into a cabinet of technocrats, since he is a politician.
If the 14-man cabinet “tecno-political” cabinet manages to see the light, this means that it will include four politicians and six technocrats.
Both President Aoun and Basil are pushing for a 24-man cabinet, however, where the political parties will get to name eight ministers, rather than six. To date, this gridlock has not been resolved, given that there are 22 portfolios in Lebanon.
One suggestion is to merge minor posts, like social affairs with tourism, and environment with administrative reform. Another is to go for a midway cabinet of 18 ministers, rather than 14 or 20.
As political parties bicker among themselves, economic conditions continue to worsen in Lebanon. Thousands of buildings were destroyed by the port explosion, uprooting 300,000 people.
The value of the Lebanese Lira continues to drop in value against the American dollar, now trading at 7200 LP. One year ago, it stood at just 1,500 SP to the American dollar. Ex-Premier Hassan Diab was engaged with the IMF at securing a $9-10 billion loan, but those talks have been on-hold since the cabinet crisis started in August.
An earlier loan of $11 billion made by international donors in France back in 2018, has also been frozen, awaiting political, economic and administrative reforms in Beirut.
Neither Hassan Diab nor Saad Al Hariri were able to deliver, since one of those reforms including clipping the wings of Hezbollah. The World Bank has estimated the cost of damages from the Beirut explosion at a whopping $4.6 billion — money that Lebanon does not have.
So far, international aid has been minimal, no more than $300 million. Germany pledged 20 million Euros while France put forth 30 million. The US has given $18 million to Lebanon and is promising another $12 million.
That money will go to the UN and other international agencies, rather than to the Lebanese state, to avoid any embezzlement, but even then, it is not enough. Unless a cabinet is officially formed and signed off by parliament, talks with the IMF cannot resume.
With all of that in mind, Mustapha Adib might find it safer — and easier — to decline the premiership and return to his post in Berlin, letting somebody else carry the impossible task of piecing the country back together.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.