Berri: Hariri won’t step down in response to Cabinet obstruction

Future officials have also accused Aoun and Bassil of seeking with their tough conditions on the Cabinet formation to push Hariri to step down

  
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri wears a face shield as he walks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon August 31, 2020.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri wears a face shield as he walks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon August 31, 2020.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has imposed a firm equation to respond to the obstruction of the formation of a new government by declaring that Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri will not step down, in a move clearly targeting President Michel Aoun and his party, a political source said Tuesday.

“Speaker Berri is countering the obstruction by President Aoun and MP Gebran Bassil of the formation of a new government by imposing a firm equation: If Hariri is not allowed to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists, he will not step aside,” the political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

Since Hariri was designated on Oct. 22 to form a new Cabinet, he and Future Movement officials have accused Aoun and his son-in-law, Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, 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.

Future officials have also accused Aoun and Bassil of seeking with their tough conditions on the Cabinet formation to push Hariri to step down.

Even Berri, in a rare blistering diatribe against Aoun last week, accused the president of seeking to remove Hariri as prime minister-designate contrary to the legislature’s designation and of violating the Constitution by insisting on naming two Christian ministers in the new government.

In remarks published by An-Nahar newspaper Tuesday, Berri said he would not back off from his latest initiative aimed at breaking the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock despite being rejected by Aoun and Bassil.

The initiative calls for the formation of a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third plus one [veto power] to any side. It seeks to end the political stalemate that for more 10 months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to tackle multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that is threatening the Lebanese with poverty and hunger.

An-Nahar quoted Berri as saying that his initiative to facilitate the Cabinet formation “is still in place and that he will not retreat from it unless there is another initiative acceptable [to all the parties].”

Berri said he maintained his support for Hariri as prime minister-designate “because he enjoys the backing of his sect, Dar al-Fatwa [the seat of the Sunni Grand Mufti], the club of former premiers and he has gained the support of MPs during the [binding] consultations.”

“They [Aoun and Bassil] do not want him [Hariri]. But we for the above-mentioned reasons uphold him,” Berri was quoted as saying, adding: “In return for no government [by Hariri], he will not step down.”

Hariri has put on hold for now his decision to step down in response to the continued obstruction by Aoun and Bassil of his attempts to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms and rescue the country from all-out economic collapse. He has said that stepping down was a “serious option.”

Asked whether Hariri may eventually step down once Berri declares that his initiative has collapsed, the speaker said: “The waiting [for Hariri to quit] will be long.”

Berri warned of dire consequences for the country’s ailing economy and fragile stability if Hariri was forced to step down. “If Hariri steps down, there will be total collapse,” Berri said, expressing fears about the country’s security.

Asked to comment on Berri’s stance that in return for obstructing the government formation, Hariri will not step down, Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star: “[Berri’s position] is insistence on making all efforts to facilitate the Cabinet formation. Stepping down remains one of Prime Minister Hariri’s options. But Hariri today is giving a chance to Speaker Berri who is saying that his initiative is continuing and that he is making efforts to ensure its success.”

Berri said Hariri, who had initially proposed a Cabinet of 18 nonpartisan specialists, accepted his initiative of raising the number of ministers to 24 and accepted a mechanism to name ministers. He added that Bassil after meetings between him and political aides from the speaker and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah accepted the initiative’s provisions before declaring in a televised speech last Sunday that he was not aware of it.

Berri scoffed at Bassil’s argument that the speaker’s initiative was a “masked tripartite system” that divides power between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites. The 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the 1975-90 Civil War, stipulated equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians. Berri’s Cabinet proposal divides the suggested 24 ministers into three groups with no veto power to any side: Eight ministers for Aoun, eight ministers for Hariri and his allies, and eight ministers to Berri’s Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies.

“President Michel Aoun will be the only one who will get more than eight ministers, while there will be only five Shiite ministers and the allies’ [ministerial] seats belong to them,” Berri said.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt, meanwhile, reiterated his call for Aoun and Hariri to reach a compromise over the Cabinet formation crisis.

“Unfortunately, they [Aoun and Hariri] are at odds over the blocking one-third [plus one] while the country is breaking down. This is a hollow pretext. I call for a compromise. A compromise in politics is essential,” Joumblatt said during a meeting with Druze sheikhs in the mountain town of Aley, the PSP’s stronghold.

He recalled that after the assassination during the Civil War of his father, Kamal Joumblatt, the founder of the PSP, a crime that was blamed on the Syrians, he made a compromise and shook hands with Syrian President Hafez Assad in 1977 for the sake of his Druze community.

“I remained an ally of Syria for 29 years and I am not ashamed of this at all. Therefore, you the influential leaders must reach a compromise,” added Joumblatt who supported Berri’s initiative.

The new government would be tasked with implementing a string of essential reforms in line with the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch and avert a much-feared social implosion. Implementation of long-overdue reforms is deemed crucial for unlocking billions of dollars in promised foreign aid to the cash-strapped country.

Lebanon is in the throes of a crippling economic and financial crisis, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the Civil War. The Lebanese pound has been in a free fall since October 2019, losing over 90 percent of its value, pushing more than half of Lebanon’s six million population into poverty and unemployment.

The Lebanese also face the threat of total darkness due to fuel shortages and the lack of funds to purchase fuel, and skyrocketing prices of food and other essential items amid plans by the caretaker government to remove subsidies on basic items, such as fuel, wheat and medicine. The lifting of subsidies on these items would further add to the misery of the Lebanese.

Meanwhile, France and its European Union partners are pondering possible sanctions on Lebanese politicians implicated in corruption and accused of obstructing the formation of a new government.

The EU’s foreign affairs committee is currently meeting in Luxembourg to discuss the Lebanese situation, including the European sanctions, and hear a report from the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after his two-day visit to Beirut last week. Borrell rebuked Lebanese politicians for delays in forming a new Cabinet, warning the EU could impose sanctions on those blocking a solution to the political stalemate.

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