With its timing and its exceptional character, the American secretary of state’s lightning visit to Beirut on June 4 marks Washington’s attachment to Libya’s stability, which has been threatened by the war in Syria and the election of a new president – protector of the country’s balance – in the shortest possible time.
After the fiasco of the Arab Spring, which brought Islamists to power, Barack Obama’s United States took things into its own hands in the Middle East. From now on, Washington is working on the stabilization of the region. After having failed to take down Bashar Assad, the oil monarchies, who played the jihadist card, were brought into line. In other words, the White House established bridges with Russia and Iran. The United States duly noted the balance of forces in Syria and Iraq. For Obama, the man of peace and compromise, Moscow and Tehran have become inevitable partners who must be integrated in the normalization effort. The new U.S. strategy is to succeed in bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran to the table – as recommended by the West and Russia – in order to pacify the hotspots in the region. On this list, Beirut comes in third behind Damascus and Baghdad, but the absence of presidential power has visibly rendered the Libyan issue even more urgent.
“The United States of America is deeply committed to Lebanon’s security, to its stability, to its sovereignty and to supporting the Lebanese people during this difficult period … We must solve the problems of the world and the region so that we enjoy our time in Beirut and Lebanon. Lebanon is an important country for the security of the region,” explained the secretary of state at the Grand Serail.
In the eyes of the United States, Libya is a microcosm of the Middle East, in which the balances are as fragile as they are indispensable. Overwhelmed by Sunni-Shiite tensions and the influx of Syrian refugees, the country is perceived in Washington as a powder keg that must not explode. The goal: Avoid the opening of another front of tensions. The absence of a president of the republic threatens this fragile balance. For his first visit to Libya since his nomination to the State Department, John Kerry enters into a tough position. In his meeting with Tammam Salam and Nabih Berri, he addressed those who, from now on, are charged with leading the management of the country. The secretary of state conveyed a strong message to them: The responsibility falls on you to assure the continuity of the state while waiting for the election of the next president.
“We want a government to be away from foreign interference and a very strong president as well as a House speaker that meets the needs of the Lebanese people. I clarified to Prime Minister Salam that President Barack Obama is committed to supporting Lebanon and security therein. Lebanon's security was our major concern for the past years, and the vacuum in Lebanon is very important and the constitutional void must be filled so that all institutions should be active.”
The head of government himself explained without a doubt that the council of ministers on June 3 was rightly dedicated solely to the study of decision mechanics, the signature of decrees and the constitutional vagueness of Article 62, which plainly stipulates that the government exercises the prerogatives of the head of state in the event of absence. Without a doubt, he also added, the Christian parties are the most resistant to the idea of another [party] exercising power destined for the Maronite community. The president of parliament had, on his part, denounced the blocking of the chamber. Did he make the point that those who require a strong president are the same as those who do not secure the quorum? He will probably illustrate his confusion by speaking of the bill on civil servant salaries, blocked by parliament because the Christian parties refuse to yield before the election of a head of state.
Ambassador David Hale, who endeavored in these past few weeks to meet the team of political leaders of the country, had already brought up this information – political and constitutional embroilment that render this election all the more urgent. On his express agenda, Kerry ticked off another essential stage. In Bkerké, the Patriarch Raï was only informed on Monday. It is at the Maronite Archdiocese in Beirut that the meeting will take place.
The position of the United States on the presidential question is the same, hammered home for many weeks: No intrusion, no names, just a call for respect to constitutional delays. This will not suffice. In order to avoid confusion of all types, John Kerry decided to have a direct discussion with the head of the Maronite church. Over the last few weeks, American diplomacy and Bkerké have developed the same approach on the presidential question: As of their last meeting to date, they are considering the possibility of prolonging the mandate of Michel Suleiman. This is a waste of time. The meeting between Kerry and the patriarch is coming up. Did one propose to the other a roadmap that would lead them to the election of a president? Were the names of candidates pronounced? “We don’t have a candidate; we’re not in the business of trying to select or put proposals on the table,” responded the American in charge.
This visit by John Kerry marks the capital importance of the country and therefore, of its stability. The election of a president contributes to this, as well as, for example, the settlement of the Syrian refugee issue or the country’s constant support of the Libyan army. Kerry announced that “[The United States is granting] another $290 million in humanitarian assistance for those affected by the conflict, both inside Syria and the communities throughout the region where they have taken refuge.” His stopover, a few hours after the Syrian presidential elections, must be interpreted through this prism. The fact that he left, even for a few hours, President Obama during his tour in Europe for the commemoration of the Normandy landings, should be considered a strong gesture towards Libya. Impromptu visit, strong messages. Addressing a country that “supports (the Syrian regime of President Bashar) Assad,” Kerry highlighted that, “[what is occurring in Syria] has become a grotesque display of modern warfare by a state against its own people,” calling on the countries, “Iran, Russia, and … Hezbollah, based right here in Lebanon – to engage in the legitimate effort to bring this war to an end.”
From now on the United States is waiting to see the evolution of discussions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Rabieh, Michel Aoun, more impatient, is also waiting for this. By sending an envoy to Paris with Saad Hariri in the following weeks, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement wants to show the leader of the Future Movement Party that he has waited long enough. Summer approaches, as does August 20, the date of the electoral college’s convocation for the legislative elections. The meetings between Gebran Bassil and Nader Hariri no longer suffice. No tangible progress seems to result from them. Aoun is waiting for a clear and definitive response. It is only on this front that the presidential deadline could move. With this void, torpor has set in, which renders the intentions of the Future Movement Party and other Muslim parties less and less visible. Without saying so, the Free Patriotic Movement obtained the guarantee of Hezbollah’s support for Aoun.
Kerry therefore came to deliver three messages. The United States is absolutely committed to preserving the stability of Libya. The discussions launched by Washington at the regional level are going in this direction. The country should no longer revive the black digression of the fail-safe surpluses in Tripoli, the southern suburb of Beirut, in Bekaa and in the south. The second message is that the next head of state must preserve the balance resulting from the Taif Agreement that John Kerry brought up during his meeting with the Patriarch Raï. His visit to Beirut will have, in any case, renewed the concern of the West. This “special attachment” has yet to be transformed into concrete initiatives that could bring the country out of the paralysis of the void.
Bassil Misses Kerry
The relations between the American and Libyan foreign affairs ministers come down to missed occasions. One month ago, the brand new minister passed onto U.S. Ambassador to Libya David Hale a request to meet with his counterpart. But he had refused under the pretext that this meeting could have been badly interpreted – as support for Michel Aoun’s candidature for presidency. Two days before Kerry’s visit, Hale informed Bassil of the arrival of the secretary, but the minister of the Free Patriotic Movement explained to him that it had to take place at the Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum in Peking on Tuesday night.