Beirut, Lebanon – French President Emmanuel Macron presented the Lebanese political establishment with two choices on a trip that ended on Tuesday: to implement reforms, and vital international aid will flow abundantly, but continue on the same path, and the doors to aid will close – and the country’s politics will ossify leadership may be directly targeted by sanctions.
“I did not come today to give a warning, but I came back to help Lebanon and accompany it towards its future,” Macron said on Tuesday, 100 years after colonial France declared the founding of Greater Lebanon .
Macron arrived in Beirut on Monday with the aim of pushing the country’s sectarian leaders to find consensus on the reforms and the need to end decades of corruption and mismanagement that have devastated the country. He has pledged to hold a conference to aid the economically devastated nation at the end of October if reforms are undertaken.
His previous visit came just days after a monstrous explosion last month killed 190 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed half of the city, causing up to $ 4.6 billion in physical damage, according to a World Bank assessment.
At the time, Macon came with the message that change was necessary if the country was to avoid a total collapse.
“You are at a critical moment in your history when the political system must be reformed,” he said on Tuesday.
“When a country disintegrates, you never know when it will be reborn”.
The new PM is not a “messiah”
Indeed, there is little to celebrate – and much to fear – as Lebanon celebrates its 100th anniversary. Over the past year, it has witnessed massive protests, a deep economic and financial crisis, a coronavirus outbreak and one of the largest non-nuclear explosions on record.
Since Macron’s last visit, the restless government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab has resigned and a new prime minister, Mustapha Adib, has been appointed by the country’s establishment under direct pressure from France.
France aimed to ensure that whoever is selected enjoys broad political support, unlike Diab.
Macron admitted that Adib was not a “messiah” and argued that Adib knew he was supported by “political forces that have lost public confidence.”
Nonetheless, he said Adib was able to form a capable government and implement the necessary reforms. And Macron said he had heard encouraging words from political leaders.
He was divided Tuesday between ceremonial gestures – a visit to the destroyed port of Beirut and the planting of a cedar, the country’s national emblem – and one-on-one meetings with politicians, whom he called together at the Ambassador’s residence.
Macron told reporters they pledged to form a government within 15 days – unprecedented in recent Lebanese history, where government formation typically takes several months.
The government should then implement reforms of the crippled electricity sector and the insolvent financial sector within three months, and hold early parliamentary polls within a year.
Macron has vowed to return by December to follow the reform process.
Threats of sanctions
If the reforms are not implemented, Macron said he would inform the international community that no aid could flow and that he would speak openly about those in Lebanon who are blocking change.
“We will not give Lebanon a white card, nor a blank check,” he said.
He also said he was not ruling out the possibility of sanctions against political leaders, but said France would first have to prove that crimes such as corruption or terrorism had been committed.
A Western diplomat told Al Jazeera that Macron keeps the option of sanctions open as “a stick he can wield” to politicians.
This includes the threat of sanctions against President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who leads the country’s largest party in terms of share of seats in parliament.
However, the source said that no sanctions were being prepared, as the international community awaits the Lebanese response to Macron’s initiative.
All political leaders have so far expressed their openness to the French initiative, including Hezbollah and Aoun. Several leaders have also called on Lebanon to finally take the step to become a secular state – a change mandated by its constitution – although they have also said so in the past.
Currently, all seats in parliament are allocated by sect, and major state posts are allocated according to religious criteria.
Macron has been repeatedly asked to justify his decision to give Hezbollah a seat at the table by meeting with a senior Hezbollah official.
The Iranian-backed armed group and political party are blacklisted as a terrorist group by Western nations like the US, UK and Germany, but France maintains relations with its so-called “political wing”.
Macron said Hezbollah was a major constituent of the Lebanese population, with representation in parliament, and that it would be foolish to exclude the group from the reform process.
He said the next round of reform talks with Lebanon would address the thorny issue of the group’s arsenal, which rivals that of the Lebanese military.
“Will we get straight to the results? I don’t know, ”Macron said. “But that shouldn’t be a taboo. “