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Lebanese official confirms Qatari initiative to tackle presidential impasse

The Gulf state has yet to publicly comment on the reported initiative.

Qatar has assumed a more pivotal role in efforts to resolve Lebanon’s longstanding obstacle to name a president, a top Lebanese official confirmed on Friday, pointing to a political initiative that is expected to replace the French-led efforts.

“It is true that there is a Qatari initiative,” Berri told local newspaper, Nidaa Al-Watan.

While the Gulf state has yet to publicly comment on the reported efforts, the Lebanese official’s remarks are the first to confirm the presence of Qatar-led efforts in discussions aimed at breaking Beirut’s prolonged presidential impasse.

Qatar is a key member of the quintet group – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, and France – which has engaged in talks since February under an initiative led by French Presidential Envoy for Lebanon Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The group first met in Paris before convening for the second time in Doha in July.

However, Lebanese media claimed last week that Qatar has since emerged as the preferred broker in the quintet, especially by the US, potentially replacing French efforts. 

In one report, Al Manar highlighted a “reluctance” among the quintet to meet at the French permanent mission to the United Nations in New York last week due to “divisions” between the members, pointing to “an American objection to the French management of the Lebanese issue”.

A separate report by Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar stated that the Americans are “clearly pushing for assigning the mission” of the presidency talks to their Gulf ally, Qatar.

Qatar’s Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dr. Mohammed bin Abdulaziz bin Saleh Al Khulaifi is also expected to return for talks in Lebanon in October, Al Jadeed TV reported on Thursday.

Notably, Al Khulaifi embarked on an “exploratory” visit to Beirut in March where he met with different Lebanese political officials.

Commenting on the latest developments in the Lebanese political arena, analysts believe that “it is quite possible” for Qatar to take charge of the French initiative.

“France appears to have burned its bridges with many of Lebanon’s political factions because it sought to accommodate Hezbollah’s demands. Qatar has credibility with everyone and has helped before in orchestrating a solution for another political crisis in 2008,” Dr. Imad Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at the Arab Center in Washington DC, virtually told Doha News last week.

In 2008, Qatar held talks that resulted in an agreement between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah following an 18-month political crisis that had raised fears over another deadly civil war.

Dr. Harb noted that the heavyweight Gulf mediator “also takes middle of the road positions that seek workable compromises.”

New name on the table

Lebanon’s elongated political stalemate stems from deep divides between the different parties as well as a lack of agreements over a presidential candidate.

The crises-stricken country has failed to elect a president at least 12 times since former President Michel Aoun left office in October last year, with each party pushing for its own preferred candidate.

Since the start of the year, potential candidates have emerged, including Army Commander General Joseph Aoun, seen by Lebanese media as the “preferred” candidate by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

However, Qatar has repeatedly dismissed such claims and stressed the decision for who takes leadership remains in the hands of the Lebanese.

On Saturday, Lebanese media pointed to General Security Acting Chief Elias Bayssari as a potential third candidate in the ongoing discussions to name a president.

Analysts have repeatedly stressed that breaking Lebanon’s political deadlock could help resolve the country’s economic crisis – the worst since the 1975 Lebanese civil war. 

For four years, Lebanon’s economy has been facing its worst downfall in decades, with the Lebanese Lira losing more than 90% of its value to the US dollar. In 2019, mass protests broke out in Beirut due to the lack of basic resources.

Lebanon’s worst economic collapse was further exacerbated in 2020 during the Covid-19 outbreak and the deadly Beirut Port explosion.

To date, authorities have yet to hold any party to account for the deadly blast, however much of the blame was directed at the local Hezbollah movement, which had called for the removal of investigation lead, Judge Tarek Bitar.

Addressing the UN General Assembly last week, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani stressed the need for international solidarity in Lebanon’s multifaceted crisis.

“In brotherly Lebanon, where danger hangs over the state’s institutions, we stress the need for finding a sustainable solution to the political vacuum, introducing mechanisms that thwart its recurrence, and forming a government capable of addressing the aspirations of the Lebanese people and getting them out of their economic and developmental crises,” Sheikh Tamim told the UNGA.

The Qatari leader added: “The prolonged suffering of these brotherly people, caused by political and personal calculations, is regrettable.”