Lebanon saw a little political movement last week, but nothing that brought progress towards filling the vacuum in the country’s presidency and freeing the hands of government closer.
The Lebanese caretaker government approved a $116 million treasury advance in order to purchase the fuel needed to power the country’s electricity plants. The Lebanese judiciary hosted a delegation of judges from the EU who had come to Beirut for five days to investigate the Lebanese Central Bank and its governor in connection with allegations of money laundering, corruption, and financial crimes in Europe.
Most recently on 19 January, the Lebanese parliament held its 11th session to vote on a new president. Outside, relatives of the victims of the Beirut Port explosions in August 2020 held another demonstration to demand transparency, accountability, and an end to the obstruction of the investigation into the incidents.
On 18 January, Lebanon’s caretaker government met for the second time since the president’s office fell vacant at the end of October. The purpose was to approve the opening of credit lines in order to pay for fuel waiting to be unloaded from tankers anchored off the Lebanese coast.
The meeting was supposed to be held the previous week, but acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati had to postpone it until he could persuade enough cabinet members to attend, especially from among the Hizbullah-affiliated ministers.
Since the end of former president Michel Aoun’s term in office, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), one of Hizbullah’s main allies, has held that it would be unconstitutional for the government to meet because it is only a caretaker government and therefore does not have the right to assume the powers of the president after that office fell vacant.
However, Mikati felt that the urgency of current conditions overrides that argument and therefore insisted on convening sessions of the cabinet solely to discuss matters that have to be dealt with immediately for the sake of public welfare. Fuel to power the country’s electricity grid was one such matter.
Even so, six cabinet members affiliated with the FPM boycotted the session, foremost among them Walid Fayad, the minister of energy. The remaining 18 members did attend, thereby ensuring the necessary quorum of two-thirds of the cabinet’s 24 members.
The session was also attended by the director of the Lebanese Electricity Authority in order to discuss requirements for sustaining a stable electricity service. The main item on the agenda was a vote on the $116 million treasury advance to purchase fuel for generating electricity and to carry out essential maintenance work on the grid in order to minimise waste.
The Hizbullah-affiliated ministers did attend the session, signalling the emergence of some significant differences between it and the FPM with regard to filling the vacuum in the executive and running the government. Hizbullah backs Suleiman Franjieh as the country’s new president, while the FPM argues that the prospective president should have a large parliamentary bloc behind him. The implication is that the new president should hail from the ranks of the FPM, which sees itself as the natural representative of Lebanese Christians.
So far, efforts to bridge the differences between the FPM and Hizbullah have proven unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the latter’s ministers and MPs continue to cast blank ballots in every vote for a new president, thereby preventing the necessary consensus to fill the vacancy.
Although FPM leader Gebran Bassil clings to the argument that caretaker cabinet meetings are unconstitutional, seven Christian ministers not affiliated with the FPM did attend this one. Like Hizbullah, they argued that the matter on the agenda was too urgent to brook delay.
On the other hand, it was reported that the Hizbullah ministers threatened to walk out if any other subject aside from electricity was put up for discussion for fear of laying the foundations for any expansion of the authority of the caretaker government.
As the crisis over the country’s vacant presidency dragged on, a delegation of judges from Germany, France, and Luxembourg arrived in the Lebanese capital to hear testimony from three former deputies of Governor of the Lebanese Central Bank the Banque du Liban Riad Salameh as well as some other bankers and financial auditors in connection with charges of money laundering and corruption.
The judges are particularly interested in the origin of around $320 million transferred to Europe through accounts belonging to the Central Bank governor, some of his relatives, and some other Lebanese politicians.
They had presented a list of individuals they would like to question and their Lebanese counterparts issued summons and arranged hearings that would also be attended by Lebanese judges. The preparations and initial hearings took place over the course of five days. They are expected to resume in early February, when the European judges will hear 18 more witnesses.
As the Lebanese parliament convened for another vote on 19 January on the new president, relatives of the victims of the Beirut Port explosions rallied again to demand action in the probe to identify and bring to account those responsible for the blasts.
The investigations have been stalled since September 2021 when Hizbullah and its allies campaigned to replace the then investigating judge. They complained that they were being unfairly singled out when ministers associated with their parties were called in for questioning. Since then, families of the victims have repeatedly staged demonstrations to demand the reopening of the probe. During an event of this type in January, two protesters were arrested and brought in for questioning, but eventually released.
Meanwhile, in the parliament itself, 111 out of the assembly’s 128 MPs were present for the vote on the new president. However, the results were the same as in the previous ten sessions.
Michel Moawad, who is backed by the Lebanese Forces Party and the Democratic Gathering parliamentary bloc, received 34 votes, while 14 were cast for the New Lebanon Project and 15 were declared invalid. All these were beaten by the 37 MPs who returned blank ballots.
Disunity and fragmentation thus remain the order of the day in parliament. One MP from the Democratic Gathering bloc threatened to boycott future sessions if they continue in this way. Two MPs vowed to stage a sit-in in the parliament until a decision is taken to keep a session open until a new president is elected, instead of adjourning it after every failed round.
Pro-change MPs Najat Saliba and Melhem Khalaf initiated the sit-in and were soon joined by others from the pro-change camp and the Kataeb and Moderate bloc. They worked out a system of rotation in order to sustain the sit-in around the clock. Shrugging off the MPs’ protests, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri refused to designate a date for the next round of voting, however.
Contrary to hopes that the new year would usher in a breakthrough in the parliamentary deadlock, the 11th session of Lebanon’s parliament showed that a solution is still out of reach, boding ill for the country.
International attention to the Lebanese plight has been distracted by the conflict in Ukraine and other crises, and the talks held between various Lebanese factions during the holiday season resulted in nothing more than talks.
FPM leader Gebran Bassil tried to sidle up to former adversaries in an attempt to cast himself as a candidate attractive to all and independent from ex-president Aoun and from his own party’s alliance with Hizbullah. That led nowhere, however, as did the contributions of Walid Jumblatt, Najib Mikati, and Suleiman Franjieh.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese lira continued its precipitous slide, hitting a new record low of 50,000 LPD to the dollar on the black market last week. Though tasked with curbing black market trading, the Lebanese Central Bank’s slow and rapidly shifting policies have only contributed to accelerating it. Meanwhile, domestic markets are suffering from severe shortages in basic commodities, especially food and medicine.
The country’s caretaker government may soon have to convene more sessions to approve urgent measures, even though Lebanon needs broad and radical solutions to its many critical problems.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.