Sanctioning Bassil Complicates The Formation of The Lebanese Cabinet

Published November 9th, 2020 - 11:13 GMT
The sanctions are the first against a high-ranking Christian ally of Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite movement long targeted by US sanctions and blacklisted as a "terrorist" organisation. JOSEPH EID / AFP
The sanctions are the first against a high-ranking Christian ally of Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite movement long targeted by US sanctions and blacklisted as a "terrorist" organisation. JOSEPH EID / AFP

The US sanctions on Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Gebran Bassil are bound to further complicate the formation of a new government, already stalled by rival factions’ jockeying for key ministerial posts and demands by President Michel Aoun to control three key ministries: Interior, Defense and Justice, political sources said Sunday.

Responding to the US sanctions, Bassil, who heads the FPM’s 24-member Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest bloc in Parliament, Sunday toughened his stance on the Cabinet formation by setting conditions that threatened to further delay the creation of an 18-member government of nonpartisan specialists envisaged by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to deliver reforms.

“You cannot punish a Lebanese party that has been slapped with US sanctions by further isolating it or preventing it from participating in the new government,” a political source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star.

“In the aftermath of the US sanctions, the FPM, which has the biggest bloc in Parliament, will now insist on its participation in the next government with important ministries after previously offering to stay out,” the source said.

Shortly before the sanctions on Bassil were announced by the US Treasury Friday, Hariri met with Aoun at Baabda Palace for the seventh time since his designation on Oct. 22 to discuss overcoming obstacles facing the Cabinet formation.

Despite a presidential statement saying the meeting was “positive,” the same source said no progress had been made as differences persisted mainly over rival parties’ competition for public-services related ministries, such as the Health, Public Works, Telecommunications, Education and Social Affairs.

“Also, the problem of Christian representation in the next government has not yet been solved,” the source said. He added that Hariri had agreed with Aoun in previous meetings on an 18-member Cabinet made up of specialists who do not belong to political parties, and also on the rotation of the remaining three so-called “sovereign ministries” – Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs.

As the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party have opted to stay out of the next government, the distribution of key and low-ranking ministerial portfolios allotted to the Christian sect should be divided among the president’s share, the FPM and the Marada Movement headed by Sleiman Frangieh. Frangieh was reported to be seeking either one of the three remaining “sovereign ministries” or two public services-related portfolios.

The issue of the Finance Ministry, the fourth sovereign ministry, had already been settled after Hariri earlier said he agreed to assigning it to the Shiite sect only for one time – a key demand of the two main Shiite groups, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.

Apparently enraged by the US sanctions, Bassil, a former foreign minister and Aoun’s son-in-law, said the sanctions must serve as an incentive to accelerate the formation of a new Cabinet, renewing the FPM’s call for an “effective and productive government capable of implementing the reform program outlined in the French initiative.”

However, Bassil outlined what he called “three pillars” for the Cabinet formation, which effectively amounted to tough conditions that threatened to hinder the formation. The FPM leader warned that the Cabinet formation would be delayed if unified criteria were not adopted in the process.

“The Cabinet formation must be based on three pillars. The first of which is the number of ministers. A minister must not be allotted two portfolios, otherwise this matter will undermine the principle of specialization and is a failed project for any minister with two portfolios,” Bassil said, speaking at a televised news conference held to respond to the US sanctions.

Bassil’s demand will run counter to Hariri’s proposed 18-member Cabinet and it will require a larger Cabinet.

“The second pillar is the distribution of [ministerial] portfolios and ministers among sects and blocs based on their sizes,” Bassil said, clearly alluding to his biggest bloc in Parliament with the largest Christian representation.

He said the rotation of the sectarian leadership of key ministries should not exclude the Finance Ministry. “Some portfolios must remain outside the rotation, or let the rotation be applied to all ministries in line with our position,” Bassil said.

Bassil was reported to be seeking to retain hold of the Energy Ministry, which has been controlled by FPM ministers for more than 10 years.

The FPM leader’s third pillar called for each party to name its own ministers, which contradicts Hariri’s demand to pick ministers by himself in coordination with the president.

“A unified mechanism must be adopted in naming specialist ministers. But no one alone must monopolize the naming of specialists ... Each party will name its ministers after which the president and the prime minister will approve them,” he said.

“If clear and unified criteria are not adopted, the Cabinet [formation] will be delayed and the one who delays it is the one who sets selective criteria and covers them with contradictory promises aimed only at increasing his share,” Bassil added.

Commenting on Bassil’s escalatory tone, a political source told The Daily Star: “Even before the US sanctions, Bassil was putting spikes in the wheels of the Cabinet formation by reviving the logic of quotas and interfering in the distribution of ministerial portfolios.”

“Now, after the sanctions, we are seeing a hard line by Bassil who portrays himself as a victim. The country is now headed toward one of two paths: Either a hard-line path, or a path where the people’s will is fulfilled for the formation of a government to carry out reforms and pull Lebanon out of its crisis,” the source said.

Rejecting corruption accusations, Bassil also vowed to fight the “unjust” US sanctions against him, saying they were the result of his refusal to break ties with Hezbollah. The FPM is linked with Hezbollah in a 2006 political alliance.

Bassil was the latest high-ranking Lebanese official to be targeted by US sanctions after former ministers Youssef Fenianos and Ali Hasan Khalil were slapped with sanctions in September for aiding Hezbollah and allegedly engaging in corruption.

Bassil was the first Lebanese official to be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act for his alleged involvement in corruption, embezzlement of public funds, obstruction of reforms and ties to the Iran-backed Hezbollah, long branded by Washington as a terrorist organization.

Hariri, backed by France and regional powers, is struggling to form a new government of nonpartisan specialists who would be tasked with enacting a string of structural economic and administrative reforms spelled out in the French initiative designed to steer the crises-hit country out of its catastrophic economic and financial crunch, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Implementation of the long-overdue reforms is needed to unlock promised international aid to the cash-strapped country wrestling with an economic meltdown, the grave consequences of the August deadly explosion that pulverized Beirut Port and left swaths of the capital in ruins, and an alarming surge in coronavirus infections. The Aug. 4 blast, the biggest in Lebanon’s history and caused by the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrates, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused billions of dollars in material damage.

Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab submitted his Cabinet’s resignation on Aug. 10 over the port blast.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

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