Amid deadlock, Hariri edging closer to stepping down: Future

Future Movement officials dismissed reports, circulated mainly by the FPM sources, that Tuesday’s meeting between Bassil and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, had made progress in the Cabinet formation process

  
Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri speaks after meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon March 22, 2021.

Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri speaks after meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon March 22, 2021.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: The continued obstruction by President Michel Aoun and MP Gebran Bassil of the formation of a new government is increasing the chances of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stepping down, Future Movement officials said Thursday, in the latest setback to ongoing efforts to break the monthslong Cabinet deadlock.

This comes as meetings between Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, and key aides from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, have so far failed to eliminate the last remaining hurdles that are hindering the formation of a proposed Cabinet of 24 nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms and rescue the crises-ridden country from all-out economic collapse.

Future Movement officials Thursday dismissed reports, circulated mainly by the FPM sources, that Tuesday’s meeting between Bassil and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a key political aide to Berri, Hussein Khalil, a political adviser to Nasrallah, and Wafic Safa, a senior Hezbollah security official, had made progress in the Cabinet formation process that has been stalled for months over a rift between Aoun and Hariri regarding who should name two Christian ministers who are not part of the president’s Cabinet share.

“I don’t see any signs of a breakthrough in the Cabinet crisis in the ongoing meetings with Bassil. This is because President Aoun and Bassil will not agree to any government, whether headed by Prime Minister Hariri or someone else, unless they secure a blocking one-third plus one [veto power],” former Future MP Mustapha Alloush told The Daily Star.

Alloush, a member of the Future Movement’s politburo, said Aoun and Bassil insisted on gaining a blocking one-third plus one in order to be able to topple the government if the need arose.

“Therefore, Speaker Berri’s initiative is in jeopardy as a result of the obstruction of the Cabinet formation,” Alloush said, “and the continued obstruction of the Cabinet formation is increasing the chances of Prime Minister Hariri stepping down.”

A political source told The Daily Star Wednesday that Hariri, who cannot accept serving indefinitely as a prime minister-designate and unable to form a government, had told Berri that he was giving his initiative one more week to resolve the Cabinet crisis after which he would step down.

Alloush said Tuesday’s meeting between Bassil and Berri’s and Nasrallah’s aides did not resolve the two remaining obstacles, namely who should name the two Christian ministers and Bassil’s rejection of Hariri’s request that the FPM grant a confidence vote to the new Cabinet even though Bassil has declared that his party would not join the government.

NEW NORMS

Aoun and Bassil strongly reject Hariri’s insistence on naming the two Christian ministers which the premier-designate argues that this is part of his constitutional powers. An official source said that Berri has promised to find a compromise to solve this problem.

Tuesday’s three-hour meeting held at Bassil’s house centered on a re-distribution of key ministerial portfolios and a mechanism to name the two Christian ministers.

Ali Hassan Khalil Wednesday briefed Hariri on the outcome of the talks with Bassil.

Although he has maintained silence on the ongoing contacts to facilitate the Cabinet formation, media reports said Hariri after his meeting with Khalil did not appear to be satisfied with the results of the talks with Bassil because they indicated that the president and the FPM leader still rejected the premier-designate’s right to name the two Christian ministers.

Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar also sounded pessimistic about the ongoing contacts to break the Cabinet deadlock, now in its tenth month.

“I don’t see positive results so far from the ongoing efforts because President Michel Aoun and FPM leader Gebran Bassil are insisting on not agreeing to a government that does not include a blocking one-third [plus one],” Hajjar said in remarks published by the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat Thursday.

Hajjar said Aoun’s and Bassil’s objection to Hariri naming the two Christian ministers is “a violation of the Constitution because the premier-designate, according to the Constitution, is the one who names ministers, while the president has the right to either object or approve.”

“The Free Patriotic Movement is trying to impose new norms on the pretext that the Sunni prime minister does not name Christian ministers even though the opposite will be a breach of constitutional powers,” he said.

“Bassil is acting as if he is the shadow president and wants to monopolize for himself taking decisions. He is looking for his political future through this government even if the price of this is the country’s destruction,” Hajjar added.

Describing Berri’s initiative as a “last chance,” Hajjar said: “If a government is not formed, the country is heading toward collapse.” He urged Hezbollah, a key ally of Aoun and the FPM, to “exert further pressure on its ally [FPM] to arrive at the government formation.”

After Berri had declared that this week should be decisive for the formation of a new government, political activity has been intensified in a bid to untangle the last remaining knots holding up the creation of a proposed Cabinet of 24 nonpartisan specialists to implement a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Berri, backed by Hezbollah, is forging ahead with a proposal calling for the formation of a 24-member government of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third plus one (veto power) to any side. Such a government is in line with Berri’s latest initiative aimed at ending the political stalemate that for 10 months has left Lebanon without a fully functioning government to tackle multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that is threatening the Lebanese with poverty and hunger.

Since his designation on Oct. 22 to form a new government, Hariri has accused Aoun and Bassil of blocking the government formation with their insistence on gaining a blocking one-third plus one (veto power), something that the premier-designate has vowed not to grant to any side. Berri’s proposal divides the suggested 24 ministers into three groups with no veto power for any side: Eight ministers for Aoun, eight ministers for Hariri and his allies, and eight ministers for Berri’s Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea Thursday called on Nasrallah to intercede with Aoun to facilitate the government formation.

Addressing Nasrallah, Geagea told a news conference at his residence in Maarab, north of Beirut, “You have the [parliamentary] majority which is responsible for the country while the people are dying. Ask the president to form a government and if he doesn’t accept, take a clear political position and this is sufficient.”

Geagea reiterated that holding early parliamentary elections was the key to resolving the deepening political and economic crises. The LF leader has repeatedly called for early parliamentary elections in hopes of getting rid of the current parliamentary majority controlled by the FPM, Hezbollah and their allies. Parliament’s four-year term expires in May next year.

Responding to Nasrallah, who said this week that holding early parliamentary elections would be a waste of time, Geagea said: “The main door to salvation is early parliamentary elections, which Nasrallah considered a waste of time. Is there a more important reason than it after months of inability to form the government? Sayyed Nasrallah: You don’t want elections at all and you want to keep the Lebanese people where they are. We will continue the struggle to take them to a bright place.”

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