BEIRUT — On the occasion of Easter Sunday, the Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai once again called on Lebanese politicians to elect a new president for the country. Lebanon has been without a head of state since the end of Michel Aoun's mandate on Oct. 31.
Rai called on the country's political leaders "not to wait to be given a secret word" to elect a new head of state. In Lebanon, the election of a new president often follows agreements between international and regional powers. The country's political deadlock comes as its now more than three-year-old economic crisis persists.
Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati claimed that "uncontrolled and non-Lebanese elements" were behind the rocket fire that targeted Israel from southern Lebanon on Thursday, prompting Tel Aviv to retaliate by launching several strike against Lebanon at dawn on Friday.
Israel has pointed its finger at the Palestinian group Hamas in Lebanon as the perpetrators of the rocket fire. Hezbollah has expressed its solidarity with Hamas, but has not claimed any responsibility for the rocket fire.
'Come out of your confusion'
"Leaders cannot enjoy power indefinitely if there is no renewed trust in them, because that trust is the source of their power. It is such a president of the republic that the Lebanese need, so that he paves the way out of the collapse," assorted Lebanese media outlets quoted the Maronite patriarch as saying during in his Easter message in Bkirki.
"This trust cannot be obtained overnight, nor through promises or conditions imposed on him," Rai continued. "A president who enjoys trust is the one who has acquired it through his actions and achievements, regardless of the presidential election. Look for such a person, you deputies and parliamentary groups, and elect him quickly. Come out of your confusion and don't wait for a secret word to be given to you," he said.
Despite some 11 attempts since September 2022, Lebanon's MPs still have not succeeded in electing the next head of state. Meanwhile, Mikati's government is serving in a caretaker capacity, having assumed that status following parliamentary elections last May.
On April 5, the majority of Christian MPs attended a day of prayer hosted by Rai, during which he addressed the issue of the presidential impasse, asking elected officials what they had done to facilitate the election of a new head of state.
The Shiite paries Hezbollah and Amal have voiced their support for the candidacy of theirr Maronite ally Sleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada Movement. However, he has still not made his candidacy official. Frangieh is close to the Syrian regime.
The main Christian parties, namely the Lebanese Forces, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Kataeb, are opposed to Frangieh's candidacy, but they have not agreed on an alternative. The MPs from the opposition and the Forces of change groups are also divided in the face of this deadline. Zgharta MP Michel Moawad, an official candidate, has so far failed to obtain a sufficient number of votes to be elected, despite the support of several opposition parties.
Mikati, the government and the strikes from South Lebanon
According to the state-run National News Agency, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati told a group of unnamed visitors at the Grand Serail that the holding of a future cabinet meeting "depends on the finalization of the issue of adjusting salaries in the public sector and the aid that can be granted."
In the shadow of the presidential vacuum, the caretaker government is required to limit itself to the management of current affairs; however, the Mikati cabinet has already met several times to adopt a series of measures, including several related to the economic crisis, despite the boycott of a number of ministers, including those affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gebran Bassil.
Regarding the armed tensions that affected South Lebanon between Thursday and Friday, Mikati defended himself against criticism that the Lebanese government is powerless in the face of these developments, the NNA reported.
"Everything that is being said about this is part of a media campaign and gratuitous attacks," the NNA reports Mikati as saying. "Since the beginning of the incidents in the south, we have been conducting behind-the-scenes contacts with all the parties concerned, including the international parties, because these issues cannot be dealt with in a loud way in the media or via statements. I have also asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to mobilize … and we have filed a complaint with the United Nations Security Council," he is cited as adding.
According to the NNA, Mikati also remarked that "Lebanon refuses any military escalation from its territory as well as any operation that would use the country to undermine the ongoing stability. The preliminary investigation conducted by the army has shown that it was non-Lebanese and uncontrolled elements who carried out the rocket fire and that it was a reaction to Israeli aggression against the Palestinian territories, including Gaza."
The Israeli army claimed it struck at dawn Friday three infrastructure sites belonging to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in the area of Rashidieh, close to Sour. There is a Palestinian refugee camp located in Rashidieh. Friday's strikes represent the first time Israel has confirmed an attack on Lebanese territory since April 2022.
The Israeli strikes followed rocket fire launched from southern Lebanon on Thursday. The launching of dozens of rockets toward Israel came a day after Israeli police violently stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest site, to dislodge Palestinians who had barricaded themselves inside.
By Friday morning, the situation had returned to normal in South Lebanon, and a precarious calm prevailed in the areas affected by the strikes.
Reacting to the incidents, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem said that "the entire axis of resistance remains vigilant." Meanwhile, the party's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announced on Friday evening that he would comment on these developments in a speech next Friday.
On Sunday, Hezbollah published a statement in which it said Nasrallah and the leader of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh met in Lebanon and that both "stand ready to face Israel."