BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese officials held 11th-hour negotiations on Monday over the formation of a new government for the crisis-hit country, a process which hit snags over the weekend despite a looming deadline to deliver on a promise made to French President Emmanuel Macron.
The French leader has been pressing Lebanese politicians to form a Cabinet made up of independent specialists that can work on enacting urgent reforms to extract Lebanon from a devastating economic and financial crisis worsened by the devastating Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut port.
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 represents the biggest threat to Lebanon since the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, and is largely blamed on decades of systematic corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon's ruling class.
During Macron's Sept 1. visit to Lebanon, Lebanese politicians promised a new government would be formed within two weeks. With one day left before that deadline, Prime Minister-designate Moustapha Adib was expected to present his Cabinet lineup to President Michel Aoun on Monday. But instead, Adib only held further consultations with the president.
Although he could still form a Cabinet later, missing the deadline would be an early blow to the premier-designate, who quit his job as Lebanese ambassador to Germany for the new post.
On Monday, the French Foreign Ministry said all Lebanese political forces had endorsed the rapid formation of a government that can implement essential reforms.
“It is up to them to translate this commitment into action without delay,” it said.
Adib's French-supported efforts to form a government of experts without party loyalists hit snags the last few days, particularly after objections by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the powerful head of Lebanon's Shiite Amal party.
Berri, an ally of the Shiite Hezbollah group, is insisting on retaining hold on the Finance Ministry. The insistence emerged after the U.S. administration slapped sanctions on his top aide last week.
Macron held a telephone call with Berri on Saturday, during which the speaker reportedly insisted that the Finance Ministry is traditionally controlled by Shiites in Lebanon, according to his aides.
In a statement issued by his office later, Berri said he objected to the way the Cabinet formation was being undertaken. However, Berri said he would be supportive of any initiative to stabilize the nation.
A government opposed by Lebanon's two main Shiite groups — both loyal to Iran — would find it difficult to pass a vote of confidence in parliament.
Adib, after meeting with Aoun on Monday, said he met the president for “further consultations” and “we hope for the best.”
Macron has visited Lebanon twice in less than a month, trying to force change on its leadership amid the crises and last month’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port.
The Beirut port blast, caused by the detonation of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates stored for years there, killed more than 190 people and injuring around 6,500. So far, no one has been held accountable for the explosion nor have officials provided answers to how such a catastrophic blast could have happened.
The turmoil comes to the backdrop of rising poverty, anger and divisions among the Lebanese. Authorities have also warned against instability that could lead to further unrest. The army said Monday that four troops were killed during a raid in the country's north that targeted the house of an extremist fugitive.
Khaled Tellawi had been blamed for an attack last month that killed three men in a predominantly Christian village in northern Lebanon. Tellawi, a Lebanese national, was a member of an extremist group that had links to the Islamic State group.