BEIRUT - French special envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian is expected to arrive in Beirut this evening for a third visit aimed at discussing ways to unblock Lebanon’s nearly one-year presidential vacuum.
As international momentum toward an election intensified in recent days, could his visit help tip the scales? Here are three key things you need to know about Le Drian's visit, and why it could be important.
1. Who is Le Drian?
Jean-Yves Le Drian is a former French foreign minister. He was tasked by French President, Emmanuel Macron, in June to break the political deadlock and presidential vacuum in Lebanon. He has had a number of meetings in Lebanon since then and is expected to meet with main political leaders, as well as individuals from civil society. He made his first trip to Lebanon as special envoy in June 21-24, meeting with political, religious and military authorities in the country. During his second trip, July 25-27, he once again met with stakeholders to encourage an election.
2. Why does his visit to Lebanon matter?
Le Drian’s newest visit follows a dozen failed voting sessions by Parliament since last year to vote on a successor to Michel Aoun. Aoun’s six-year term as president ended on Oct. 31.
At the end of August Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for seven days of renewed national dialogue to end the vacuum. But this initiative was suspended due to cold feet from other parties.
Le Drian this week will have a “concrete framework” for bilateral discussions, based on responses by various Lebanese actors to a questionnaire he sent to them on Aug. 15, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
In the questionnaire, Le Drian reportedly asked different parliamentary groups about the "priority projects" the next president of the country should focus on, as well as the "qualities and skills" the future head of state should possess.
However, some opposition groups refused to respond to the questionnaire, and have given only an oral response.
According to a source from the Élysée Palace, the French emissary's trip is "the last chance" for him to help reach a consensus, "especially since Le Drian will soon have to take up his new position in Saudi Arabia." The message he will convey is that of "the concomitance of the Lebanese presidential election and the reforms required by the international community," according to the Élysée source.
3. Increasing international momentum
Le Drian's visit comes amid increasing international momentum to bring about an election. According to one Western diplomatic source, efforts by the quintet Saudi Arabia, France, the United States and Egypt seem to be gradually falling into place.
What do these countries want?
It is thought that Qatar and, more discreetly, the United States, lean towards the candidacy of army chief Joseph Aoun — an option that France and Saudi Arabia are increasingly convinced of.
However, neither Paris, nor Riyadh, nor even Washington — who often reiterate that they do not favor any one candidate, as the choice must belong to the Lebanese — have publicly expressed support for Aoun. “It will be Qatar” that will openly declare a favored candidate, asserted Achraf Rifi, an opposition MP. According to him, “there are only four candidates who are unanimously supported by the major capitals. They are: Joseph Aoun, Joseph Aoun, Joseph Aoun and Joseph Aoun.”