Lebanon Resumes Govt Formation Talks This Week

Published January 5th, 2021 - 09:17 GMT
Lebanese President Michel Aoun delivers televised address on eve of Lebanon's centenary. (AFP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun delivers televised address on eve of Lebanon's centenary. (AFP)

Talks on the formation of a new Cabinet are expected to resume this week, after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri returns from a family holiday abroad, amid unyielding positions by President Michel Aoun and Hariri that dash hopes for breaking the weekslong stalemate anytime soon, political sources said Monday.

The already-stalled Cabinet formation process was complicated further over the weekend by tensions that arose from Iran’s threat to use Hezbollah’s missile capabilities in any potential confrontation between Iran and Israel.

The remarks by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Force Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh that all the missile capabilities of Gaza and Lebanon have been supported by Iran, and that they were the front line in confronting Israel, ramped up political tensions and divisions in a country already sharply split between a Western-backed camp opposed to Tehran’s growing influence in the region and the rival Iranian-supported bloc led by Hezbollah. Iran’s and Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents have condemned Hajizadeh’s remarks, saying they trespassed Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.

“Prime Minister Saad Hariri will not budge from his endeavor to form an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative,” a political source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star.

“Likewise, Hariri will not accept granting veto power to any party in the new government, or assigning two key ministries, the Interior and Justice ministries, to Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement,” the source said.

Despite mediation efforts undertaken by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai to narrow differences between Aoun and Hariri and accelerate the Cabinet formation, the two leaders remained poles apart on the shape and makeup of the next government. The premier-designate’s meetings with the president last month failed to make a breakthrough in the impasse that has left Lebanon without a fully functioning government for more than four months as the two leaders stand firm on their conflicting positions.

In the 14 meetings they have held since Hariri was designated to form a new government on Oct. 22, the premier-designate and the president have been trying to resolve their differences over the makeup of the government and over who gets to name the nine Christian ministers in the proposed 18-member Cabinet. Aoun had insisted he should be the one to name them, while Hariri had cited the Constitution where he says the president’s role is confined to accepting or rejecting the lineup proposed by the premier-designate.

After his last meeting with Aoun on Dec. 23, Hariri said “clear complications” were still delaying the Cabinet formation, stressing that a new government should be formed after the New Year in order to halt the country’s economic collapse.

Asked what was hindering the government formation, the same source said: “Aoun’s insistence that demands of his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, be met in the new government.”

Despite his repeated denial, Bassil, the FPM leader, is demanding a veto power in the next government and he wants political parties to be represented in the government, the source said. “Bassil also wants to control the Energy, Interior and Justice ministries,” the source added.

Since his designation, Hariri has insisted on forming a Cabinet made up of nonpartisan specialists, entirely ruling out representatives of political parties. He stressed that a new government was urgently needed to carry out reforms in order to halt the country’s economic collapse and rebuild Beirut following the massive Aug. 4 explosion that pulverized Beirut Port.

Hariri’s attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan experts to enact reforms have stumbled on feuding parties’ horse-trading over key ministerial seats, as well as lingering rifts with Aoun over the naming of Christian ministers and over who controls three sovereign ministries that deal with security: Defense, Interior and Justice.

In addition to refusing to grant veto power to any party in the next government, Hariri was also reported to have opposed allotting the Interior and Justice ministries to Aoun and the FPM.

During a “war of words” last month, Aoun’s media office accused Hariri of unilaterally naming ministers, especially Christian ministers, without an agreement with the president. It also accused Hariri of not adopting unified criteria in the distribution of portfolios.

Rai, who has promised to continue his mediation bid to facilitate the Cabinet formation, Sunday said Aoun and Hariri were capable of forming a new government if they rose above ministerial shares.

The Politburo of the Amal Movement headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for the quick formation of a new government by rising above “private sectarian interests.”

Amal’s Politburo called on those concerned with the Cabinet formation to “listen to the voice of the nation, citizens and friendly states that are keen on Lebanon to act to form a government without pausing at narrow calculations and private partisan and sectarian interests,” said a statement issued after the Politburo’s weekly meeting.

Underlining the urgency of forming a new government, the statement said: “Lebanon was and is still in the eye of the storm that is striking the region as a result of policies of threats with fleets that target our security. This requires alert and vigilance in these fatal times in which the Zionist enemy is working to ignite war in the region.”

The Cabinet crisis comes as Lebanon is wrestling with an economic meltdown, caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement, and a crashing currency that has lost more than 80 percent of its value since last year, putting half of the 6 million Lebanese population below the poverty line. Lebanon is also grappling with the grave consequences of the port blast that killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused losses worth billions of dollars, as well as an alarming surge in coronavirus infections.

The caretaker government Monday imposed a new lockdown that is set to last from Jan. 7 until Feb. 1, in a bid to curb the dangerous spread of coronavirus as the holiday season came to a close.

Lebanon saw a record number of coronavirus cases last week with total infections nearing 200,000 with almost 1,500 deaths. Officials have predicted a jump in cases and fatalities after the holiday season with many Lebanese ignoring safety measures.

The formation of a new government is desperately awaited by the Lebanese, as well as the international community which has linked the release of billions of dollars in promised aid to the crises-ridden country to the implementation of a slew of structural reforms.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

Copyright © 2021, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

You may also like