It's all in the timing.
Although four Lebanese MPs claimed their visit to Washington this week was to participate in the National Prayer Breakfast, the timing seems far from trivial.
Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elias Bou Saab (close to the Free Patriotic Movement) was accompanied by MPs Marc Daou and Yassin Yassin (affiliated with the protest movement) and Neemat Frem (Independent) on a trip that began Monday. The trip comes while Lebanon is sinking deeper into crisis and presidential elections are stalled.
The United States, alongside Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France and Egypt, will participate in a key meeting on the Lebanese file in Paris next week.
National Prayer Breakfast
“Our visit to the US came at the invitation of a group of US senators and congressmen to participate in the National Prayer Breakfast,” Marc Daou told L'Orient-Le Jour.
The annual event of political figures from around the world was held Thursday in Washington.
“We are not an official parliamentary delegation,” said the MP for Aley.
However, this did not prevent Lebanese MPs from conducting official meetings. “There will be bilateral meetings, each on his own, and other group [meetings],” Daou said.
The first of these meetings was held Monday with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Lebanon has been negotiating with the financial agency since 2020 to obtain funds needed to alleviate its economic crisis.
“The IMF told us that Beirut has not made any steps towards the implementation of the staff-level agreement reached in April,” Yassin Yassin old L’Orient-Le Jour. “They are still waiting for the 2023 state budget, which is several months late.”
Is the presidential election part of the discussion, especially given that Jihad Azour — IMF regional director for the Middle East and Central Asia — is seen as a serious candidate for the Lebanese presidency?
“Not at all,” said the two protest MPs. They said the IMF meeting was strictly focused on the economic crisis.
A similar meeting with the World Bank was also on the agenda. The World Bank is supposed to finance the transfer of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon via Syria, but this project runs into the obstacle of US sanctions.
“The World Bank is not a charity ... It will not finance this project if no reforms are implemented in the electricity sector,” said Edward Gabriel, diplomat and president of the American Task Force on Lebanon to L'Orient-Le Jour.
Lebanese elections presidential
The MPs' meetings were not limited to economic issues.
“We had meetings with the US State Department, senators, and pressure groups,” said the two MPs of the protest movement. The Americans should, according to concordant sources, convey to the Lebanese visitors their commitment to the election of a “reformist and sovereignist” president.
“The profile of the president will have a significant impact on bilateral relations between Washington and Beirut, especially in terms of economic aid,” said Gabriel. This was confirmed by one of the MPs who traveled to Washington.
“We already know the US administration is opposed to the election of a pro-Hezbollah president,” he said, adding: “This is one of the messages they will bring to Paris next week for the meeting that will be held on the Lebanese file .”
This discussion in Paris will likely insist on the election of a consensus president, with a reformist profile. In this vein, the participating countries would place army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun at the top of the list of candidates.
Gen. Aoun's name is not necessarily to everyone's liking, especially to Maronite MP Neemat Frem, who no longer hides his presidential ambitions. Frem, who asserted himself as the spearhead of the opposition in Kesrouan, is trying to reposition himself as a consensus candidate for president.
“Mr. Frem has good relations in the United States and is active in promoting his own candidacy,” said a parliamentary source. In Frem's circles, it is said that the independent MP is mainly explaining his program in his interviews in the United States.
“Neemat Frem travels to the United States several times a year, but this time he is taking the opportunity to tour decision-makers and present his project,” said a source close to the MP. “For us, the economic issue is as important as the political issue. We must work on both fronts rather than neglecting the economy so as to deal only with political issues, such as Hezbollah's weapons.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.