Bassil’s proposal for expanded Cabinet fails to evoke interest

Bassil also kept up his tough rhetoric against Hariri, accusing him of violating the provisions of the French initiative and constitutional rules in the formation of a new Cabinet

  
Gebran Bassil, a Lebanese politician and head of the Free Patriotic movement, talks during an interview with Reuters in Sin-el-fil, Lebanon July 7, 2020.

Gebran Bassil, a Lebanese politician and head of the Free Patriotic movement, talks during an interview with Reuters in Sin-el-fil, Lebanon July 7, 2020.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: MP Gebran Bassil’s proposal for an expanded government has failed to evoke a positive response to help break the monthslong Cabinet deadlock and instead ramped up political tensions in the crises-ridden country, apparently dashing hopes for an imminent solution to the impasse.

In a televised news conference Sunday, Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, called for raising the number of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to 20 or 22 ministers as a possible solution to the government standoff, a proposal that is likely to be spurned by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.

Bassil also kept up his tough rhetoric against Hariri, accusing him of violating the provisions of the French initiative and constitutional rules in the formation of a new Cabinet, saying he could not be trusted to implement reforms.

Bassil, who heads the FPM’s 24-member Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest in Parliament with the biggest Christian representation, denied Hariri’s accusations that either President Michel Aoun or the FPM had demanded a blocking third [veto power] in the new government. Bassil’s conference was intended to respond to Hariri’s speech on Feb. 14 in which the premier-designate bluntly accused Aoun of blocking the formation of a new government by insisting on veto power.

His escalatory speech reflected the mounting tensions and the wide gap between Aoun and Hariri over the formation of a new government and subsequently was bound to further complicate the already stalled formation process.

The Amal Movement Monday called for the swift formation of a new government to halt the “catastrophic collapse” in the country, while it implicitly slammed Bassil for raising sectarian tensions to push his conditions in the Cabinet formation process.

The position of the Amal Movement headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri came amid a deepening rift between Aoun and Hariri over the formation of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.

“Needless to say, the country needs in this difficult period a government to stop the catastrophic collapse whose ball is rolling on the shoulders of citizens. A government outside the game of conditions and ‘outsmarting’ attempts by inventing factors of obstruction instead of facilitation,” said a statement issued after the weekly meeting of the Amal Movement’s politburo. It was implicitly referring to Bassil, who has been accused by Future Movement officials of blocking the government formation with his conditions and demand for veto power.

The statement indirectly accused Bassil of using strange constitutional interpretations and stirring up sectarian tensions to press for the rights of Christians. It called on feuding parties to seize “the opportunity to emerge from the complicated situation by accelerating the formation of a mission government based on the positive requirements of Speaker Nabih Berri’s initiative, which calls for a government without [granting] any party a blocking third or fourth or shares.”

The “mission government,” agreed upon by Lebanon’s political leaders during their meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1, would be tasked with unleashing “a package of economic and financial reforms that begin with a forensic audit in all state institutions so that Lebanon can inspire confidence to friendly and brotherly states that are trying to help Lebanon provided that it begins helping itself first,” the Amal statement added.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora also accused Bassil of inciting sectarian tensions in his approach to the Cabinet formation process.

“MP Gebran Bassil has hurt the presidency’s position by withdrawing from it one of the most important elements that characterize our democratic system, which is the position of neutrality and governance for the president,” Siniora said in an interview with Al-Jadid TV station. “Bassil tried in his speech to play with sectarian strings and provoke sectarian instincts.”

He called on Aoun and Hariri to cooperate together on the formation of a new government. “According to the Constitution, the one who forms the [Cabinet] is the prime minister,” Siniora said.

Former MP Sleiman Frangieh, head of the Marada Movement and an archfoe of Bassil, declined to comment on the FPM leader’s speech. “I did neither hear [Bassil’s] speech, nor did I want to hear it. I don’t want to waste my time,” Frangieh told Al-MustaqbalWeb.

MP Wehbe Qatisheh from the Lebanese Forces’ parliamentary Strong Republic bloc scoffed at Bassil’s speech, especially when the FPM leader said that Syrian President Bashar Assad had told him once that if there was only one Christian left in Lebanon he should be elected president.

“Bassil is emboldened by Syrian President Bashar Assad without learning from the lessons of the past... The Christians and with them Lebanon are in danger if they don’t save themselves from Gebran Bassil,” Qatisheh said in a statement.

The LF, headed by Samir Geagea, was one of Christian and Muslim parties that staunchly opposed Syria’s military presence in Lebanon and its interference in internal Lebanese politics. Geagea, a vocal critic of Bassil’s policies and Aoun’s mandate, has repeatedly called on the president to step down.

MP Pierre Abu Assi also from the LF’s bloc said he was not interested in Bassil’s speech. “We are fed up with talk. He [Bassil] has exhausted all his energies in the past years and I don’t expect anything from him. They [FPM] have been in power for 13 years and four years have passed since [Aoun’s] mandate, and where is the reform?” Abu Assi said in a TV interview, referring to the FPM’s much-trumpted slogan of “Change and Reform.”

The Future Movement struck back at Bassil, accusing him of seeking to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians with his constant harping on Christian rights in the government. It said Bassil’s speech “did not carry anything new or open even a small hole in the wall of obstruction and disruption.”

Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar entirely ruled out the possible expansion of the proposed 18-member Cabinet. He told The Daily Star Sunday that there had been an agreement between Aoun and Hariri on the issue of an 18-member government.

Hariri, who last week visited Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as part of a tour aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states, was due to return to Beirut this week. The tour has also taken him to Turkey, Egypt and France.

Hariri’s return was expected to revive contacts on the formation of a new government eagerly awaited by the Lebanese and the international community to carry out a string of economic and administrative reforms desperately needed to unlock billions of dollars in promised foreign assistance to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.

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