Berri said to push 24-member Cabinet proposal

Berri’s push, part of an initiative aimed at breaking the Cabinet deadlock, will come after senior Egyptian and Arab League officials failed in talks with top Lebanese leaders last week to make any tangible progress to resolve the government crisis

  
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 will seek to push for the formation of a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power granted to any side, political sources said Monday, in the latest bid to break the deadlock that has thrown the country into a political mess for eight months.

Berri’s push, part of an initiative aimed at breaking the Cabinet deadlock, will come after senior Egyptian and Arab League officials failed in talks with top Lebanese leaders last week to make any tangible progress to resolve the government crisis.

The failed mediation efforts by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and the Arab League’s Deputy Secretary-General Hossam Zaki were the latest in local and foreign endeavors to nudge rival political leaders into agreeing on the swift formation of a new government desperately needed to enact reforms, rebuild Beirut after last year’s massive port explosion and prevent the country’s economic collapse.

The failed Arab mediation attempts have raised fears that France and its European partners might impose sanctions on Lebanese politicians blocking the formation of a new government.

“Speaker Berri is gearing up to launch his initiative which is based on the formation of a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third [veto power] to any party,” a parliamentary source said.

A member of Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc said the speaker’s initiative, aimed at resolving the Cabinet formation crisis, was still in force.

“Speaker Nabih Berri’s initiative is still alive. Contacts are ongoing at a pace that may differ according to the surrounding circumstances, and according to the speech tone that reflects on the Cabinet formation process,” MP Qassem Hashem said in a local TV interview.

Hashem implicitly blamed President Michel Aoun’s unyielding position on the makeup of the new Cabinet and his insistence on naming Christian ministers, in addition to his reported demand for a blocking-one third [veto power], for the Cabinet deadlock. “Some are still standing firm on their positions on the Cabinet issue, even though the formation of a government is required today not tomorrow. This has led to the state of standstill in the [Cabinet] issue,” he said.

“A solution to the formation crisis is in the hands of the Lebanese. We need in this respect a sincere national will away from dealing with spitefulness,” Hashem added.

Former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a top political aide to Berri, confirmed that the speaker was determined to find a solution to the government impasse.

“The main gateway to emerge from the crisis is the formation of a government. Speaker Berri is spearheading serious moves to reach a genuine conclusion for the formation of a government according to the French initiative,” Khalil said during a political dialogue with members of the Amal Movement headed by Berri.

The Amal Movement’s politburo Monday warned that obstruction of the Cabinet's formation amounted to “treason against the Lebanese.” It said Berri’s proposal for a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan experts with no veto power to any party constituted an appropriate solution to the crisis.

“With the advent of the [fasting] month of Ramadan, the Lebanese are yearning as they did in the Easter holiday for those holding up the Cabinet formation to relent so that they can offer the Lebanese a stolen right for a government that will draw up a rescue plan and put the provisions of the French initiative into effect, a nonpartisan mission government for which Speaker Berri has devised an appropriate formula along with honest people in this country,” said a statement issued after the weekly meeting of Amal’s politburo.

“Today, inspired by the spirit of Ramadan, the Amal Movement asserts that the delay, and even obstruction of the government’s birth, amounts to treason against the Lebanese, whose misery is soaring and pushing them to the highest levels of emigration,” it added.

Asked to comment on Berri’s initiative, an official source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star Monday: “So far, there are no serious moves. There is talk about an initiative called ‘Berri’s initiative.’ But there is nothing practical so far. The [Cabinet] deadlock persists.”

Neither Aoun nor Hariri has yet commented on Berri’s initiative, which is based on a proposal made by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt who has called for compromise over the Cabinet formation.

A source at Baabda Palace had told The Daily Star that Aoun would react to the 24-member Cabinet proposal once he had been officially informed of it.

But Hariri, according to Zaki, the Arab League official, appeared to support Berri’s initiative. “I think that he [Hariri] has an idea that the proposal made by Speaker Nabih Berri is, to a large extent, acceptable,” Zaki said after holding talks with Hariri last week as part of his meeting with top Lebanese leaders on the Cabinet crisis.

Dimming hopes for an early solution to the crisis is the fact that Aoun and Hariri, who are constitutionally mainly responsible for the Cabinet's formation, have not been on speaking terms since their last meeting on March 22 that failed to resolve their deepening rift which for eight months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to cope with multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 90 percent of its value since October 2019, and subsequently put half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.

Since his designation on Oct. 22 to form a new government, Hariri, backed by France and Arab countries, has long insisted on a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to implement a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon.

Hariri was as reported to have discussed with Berri the proposal which divides the suggested Cabinet of 24 ministers into three groups: Eight ministers for Aoun, eight ministers for Hariri and allies, and eight ministers for the Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies. This division will ensure that no side gains veto power, a major hurdle that for months has blocked Hariri’s attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah, a key ally of Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement headed by MP Gebran Bassil, was reported to be mediating in the Cabinet crisis and trying to advance a solution based on Berri’s initiative.

Hezbollah officials could not be reached for comment on the outcome of the reported mediation bid.

But the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat said Hezbollah had failed to persuade Aoun and Bassil to support Berri's initiative. “Hezbollah has failed to persuade its allies, Aoun and Bassil, to drop their reservations about Berri’s initiative and their conditions that are hindering the government formation,” the paper said.

Speaking in an interview with Al-Manar TV Sunday night, Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said a solution to the Cabinet crisis needed “mutual concessions” from Aoun and Hariri.

Hariri has accused Aoun and his son-in-law, Bassil, of blocking the government formation with their insistence on gaining a blocking one-third [veto power], something he has vowed not to grant to any party.

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