BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's president said Monday that the crisis-hit country could be going to “hell” if a new government was not formed, suggesting it would require a “miracle” for that to happen at this point.
The stark warning comes as the country struggles to contain a spiraling economic and financial crisis that threatens to nose-dive further in the coming weeks, as well as concerns of unrest in the fragile country also witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths.
In a televised address, President Michel Aoun criticized his political allies, the Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, for insisting to hold on to the Finance Ministry portfolio in any new government and on naming the Shiite ministers in the Cabinet.
Asked by a reporter where Lebanon is headed if no government is formed soon, Aoun replied: “To hell, of course. Why else would I be standing here speaking if this wasn’t the case?”
He also criticized Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib for attempting to form a government and impose names for Cabinet positions without consulting with the parliamentary blocs.
The political deadlock has undermined a French initiative led by President Emmanuel Macron for a Lebanese government of independent specialists to enact desperately needed reforms meant to extract the country from its crises.
The deadline for forming a government according to the French plan was missed last week, amid the impasse over the Finance Ministry portfolio.
Top Lebanese posts, including the job of president, prime minister and parliament speaker, are distributed according to sect, in line with the country’s sectarian power-sharing agreement. While that agreement stipulates the even distribution of parliament and Cabinet seats between Muslims and Christians, it does not distribute seats according to sect.
Aoun, in his speech, said Lebanon's Cabinet-formation crisis should not have happened because the challenges facing Lebanon “do not allow for wasting a single minute.” He said no sect has the right to monopolize any Cabinet portfolio and urged the two Shiite groups to return to the constitution.
“We have offered reasonable solutions for forming a government but they were not accepted by either side," he said.
He also offered an extremely bleak vision for the future.
“As positions become harder, there doesn’t seem to be a near solution on the horizon,” he said. Asked whether there was still a chance, he replied, “Maybe there will be a miracle.”
Within an hour of Aoun’s speech, the hashtag “we are going to hell” in Arabic was trending on Twitter in Lebanon.
Lebanon, a former French protectorate, is mired in the country’s worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. It defaulted on paying back its debt for the first time ever in March, and the local currency has collapsed, leading to hyperinflation and soaring poverty and unemployment.
The small, cash-strapped country is in desperate need of financial assistance but France and other international powers have refused to provide aid before serious reforms are made. The crisis is largely blamed on decades of systematic corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon’s ruling class.
The crisis has been worsened by the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut’s port caused by the detonation of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, which killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands and caused losses worth billions of dollars.
Macron has previously described his initiative, which includes a road map and a timetable for reforms, as “the last chance for this system.”
While initially committing to the plan and naming a new prime minister-designate who promised to deliver a Cabinet within two weeks, Lebanese politicians have been unable to meet the deadline amid divisions over the manner in which the government formation is being carried out, away from the usual consultations and horse-trading among political factions.
Adib's efforts to form a government of experts without party loyalists soon hit snags, particularly after the U.S. administration slapped sanctions on two former Cabinet ministers and close allies of Hezbollah, including the top aide to the powerful Shiite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Berri, who heads the Hezbollah-allied Shiite Amal movement, and Hezbollah insist on keeping hold of the Finance Ministry, which has been held by a Shiite close to Berri and Hezbollah for the past 10 years. Berri has also objected to the way the Cabinet formation was being undertaken, apparently angered that Adib has not been consulting them.
Adib, a Sunni according to Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system and former diplomat who is supported by Macron, got the backing of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and was appointed to form a Cabinet on Aug. 31. The Shiite groups have accused Hariri and other Sunni ex-prime ministers of interfering in Adib's efforts to form a government, as well as imposing names and conditions.