Macron returns to Beirut with new calls for Lebanese reform

Macron arrived Monday night, just hours after Lebanon designated its ambassador to Germany, Mustapha Adib, as the next prime minister. The choice drew rebukes from many Lebanese who see the relatively unknown diplomat as another representative of the political class they blame for the country’s many woes, particularly because he previously worked for Najib Mikati, a former prime minister widely accused of corruption.

Adib is replacing Hassan Diab, who resigned in the wake of last month’s blasts, and he will now be tasked with forming a government and helping negotiate a much-needed bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

At the airport, Macron told reporters he hopes to ensure on his visit that the Lebanese government will serve the people and fight to reform the country’s markets, justice system, electricity problems, central bank and port management. His schedule includes an event commemorating the founding of Greater Lebanon, meetings with leaders across the political spectrum and a visit to the port where the explosion occurred.

“These reforms are essential, and if they happen, then the international community — spearheaded by France — will support Lebanon and the Lebanese people,” he said. Although the French mandate over the country ended in 1943, France has maintained a close relationship with the country and offered support during times of crisis.

This is Macron’s second visit in just a few weeks, after his dramatic appearance in the capital two days after the explosion, when he greeted civilians in the street and promised he would stand by them and protect aid money delivered to the country.

France is seeking reassurances from Lebanon and pressing for reforms as many Lebanese raise concerns that aid funneled directly through the government will be siphoned off by corrupt politicians and kept from reaching the people who need it most.

“It’s the last chance for this system,” Macron told Politico Europe on his flight to Beirut on Monday. “It’s a risky bet I’m making. I am aware of it. . . . I am putting the only thing I have on the table: my political capital.”

If Macron does not see major progress in the next several months, he told the media outlet, he would turn to more drastic options, including sanctions or withholding bailout money.

Weeks after the blast at the port, originating in a warehouse storing highly explosive ammonium nitrate, piles of rubble still lie on the city’s sidewalks, and abandoned cars sit crushed under piles of debris. The cleanup effort has been led mainly by civilian volunteers who banded together to sweep the streets of glass and other wreckage from the explosion.

An initial World Bank assessment determined that the blast may have caused up to $4.6 billion worth of damage — an enormous sum for a country already submerged in an economic crisis that seems to be worsening by the day. Prices of basic goods have skyrocketed in recent months as the currency has plummeted in value, leaving many ordinary Lebanese struggling. A United Nations agency warned late last month that half the country’s population could face hunger by the end of the year.

What happens over the next six weeks will be pivotal for the country’s future, Macron told reporters Tuesday, adding that he is prepared to host an October conference on assistance to Lebanon. In a visit to the ruined port, he told the French news outlet Brut that Adib needs to form a new government in the next several days to get to work on its many needed reforms.

“We also need to know what happened on August 4,” he said, referring to an investigation into the cause of the port explosion.

But observers say Adib, tapped under French pressure to form a government, is unlikely to appease fed-up Lebanese. On a Monday afternoon visit to Gemmayze, a neighborhood severely damaged by the August blast, a civilian followed Adib screaming that he represents the elite and that the people do not want him in power. Protests were planned in the capital for Tuesday evening.

“The political class understood Macron would come with an expectation that there would be a government formation process and a prime minister, so they preempted him,” said Emile Hokayem, a Lebanese political analyst. “But they also put [Adib] in as a fait accompli. Now Macron cannot come and dispute the appointment of Adib because that would be interference in the affairs of the sovereign state.”

Macron’s visit will, however, put further pressure on Adib to quickly form a cabinet and get to work on the country’s financial crisis, Hokayem said.

Massive street protests that forced former prime minister Saad Hariri out of office last October called for a total overhaul of the same political system that chose Adib on Monday.

And the explosion only added to civilians’ anger with the ruling class. “People really want a change in behavior . . . and some minimum decency from the people ruling the country,” said Ziyad Baroud, who served as Lebanese interior minister from 2008 to 2011.

Two protests broke out in Beirut on Tuesday evening, including a small one in front of the French Embassy where demonstrators called for the release of Georges Abdallah, a Lebanese citizen imprisoned in France for the 1982 murders of an Israeli diplomat and an American military attaché.

A separate, larger anti-government demonstration also erupted in Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut. The military deployed tear gas against protesters, some of whom threw rocks at security forces and tried to scale the wall of the parliament building. The Lebanese Red Cross dispatched five ambulances to the scene and treated a handful of people for injuries, including one who was transferred to a hospital.

Upon arrival Monday, Macron went straight to the home of Fairouz, a legendary singer now in her mid-80s whose songs stir nostalgia for a unified Lebanon. A group of protesters gathered outside her home, expressing their disappointment in Adib. “No cabinet with, or by, the murderers,” read one sign.

But Macron’s visit to the icon was likely intended to serve as a symbolic gesture to the idea of a unified Lebanon, Baroud said.

“She’s part of this idea of Lebanon that we have in our minds, that we were taught by our parents,” Baroud said of Fairouz. “She represents that symbolic, beautiful Lebanon. And I think he wanted to make a point and say, ‘This is the Lebanon we would like to support.’”

Sarah Dadouch and Nader Durgham in Beirut and Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.

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