Hariri’s return set to revive talks on Cabinet crisis

“Hariri’s absence on a foreign trip has brought the stalled Cabinet formation process to a standstill. Now with his return to Beirut, things should get moving and efforts intensified to help break the Cabinet deadlock,” a political source familiar with the matter said

  
Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon October 12, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS

Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon October 12, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s return to Beirut is expected to revive talks, including a possible meeting with President Michel Aoun, to resolve differences over the formation of a new government to implement reforms and rebuild Beirut after the massive Beirut Port explosion, political sources said Tuesday.

“Hariri’s absence on a foreign trip has brought the stalled Cabinet formation process to a standstill. Now with his return to Beirut, things should get moving and efforts intensified to help break the Cabinet deadlock,” a political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

Hariri returned to Beirut overnight after visiting Qatar and the United Arab Emirates where he held talks with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan centering on bilateral relations and the Cabinet formation crisis, now in its sixth month.

The Doha and Abu Dhabi’s visits were part of Hariri’s tour that has already taken him to France, Egypt and Turkey aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states. Media reports said Hariri planned to also visit Britain and Germany.

After his return, Hariri Tuesday chaired a meeting of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc to brief them on the results of his tour and on his ongoing attempts to form a new government.

Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar said Hariri was adamant on his proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists without granting veto power to any party despite a proposal by MP Gebran Bassil to raise it to 20 or 22 ministers.

“Prime Minister Hariri has said what he has to say. He spoke about the government that can satisfy the international community, a government that can restore confidence of the Lebanese in their government and the confidence of outside powers in Lebanon,” Hajjar told The Daily Star, referring to Hariri’s tough 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.

Hajjar said the Russians have on several occasions clearly called for the formation of a government without granting a blocking third [veto power] to any party.

“Prime Minister Hariri is still talking about the same Cabinet of 18 nonpartisan specialists without granting veto power to any party. Otherwise, there will be no solution,” Hajjar added.

An official source told The Daily Star that Hariri had rejected a proposal for a 22-member Cabinet.

Hariri’s return to Beirut coincided with spiraling tensions with Aoun over the formation of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.

The renewed tensions between Aoun and Hariri over the Cabinet formation were reflected in a defiant and escalatory speech by Bassil, who kept up his blistering diatribe against the premier-designate, accusing him of violating the provisions of the French initiative and constitutional rules in the formation of a new government, saying he could not be trusted to implement reforms.

In a televised news conference Sunday, Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, called for raising the number of the proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to 20 or 22 ministers as a possible solution to the government standoff.

But the proposal, in addition to being spurned by Hariri, has failed to evoke any favorable response to help break the deadlock, apparently dashing hopes for an imminent solution to the crisis.

The deepening Aoun-Hariri rift comes as Lebanon’s political adversaries are coming under mounting Arab and international pressures to resolve their differences and agree on the rapid formation of a credible government to carry out a string of economic and administrative reforms deemed essential to unlocking billions of dollars in promised foreign aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.

Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari Tuesday joined Arab and foreign officials in calling for the swift formation of a new government to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 80 percent of its value since 2019, and subsequently put half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.

Speaking during a meeting with US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea at his residence in Yarzeh, Bukhari stressed the “kingdom’s commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, particularly the need to speed up the formation of a government capable of fulfilling the aspirations of the Lebanese people,” the state-run National News Agency reported.

It said the two envoys discussed “current political developments in the regional and international arenas, in addition to issues of mutual interest.”

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Latif Derian urged Aoun and Hariri to cooperate on the formation of a new government and criticized those obstructing the formation process.

“Optimism and cooperation to form a government are a national duty and those putting obstacles and hurdles in the way of the formation are pushing Lebanon toward further crises, disintegration, ruins and devastation for internal and external goals,”Derian said, speaking to visitors at his seat in Dar al-Fatwa.

The mufti called on “those who are keen on Lebanon’s sovereignty and freedom to help rescue it from the suffocating crisis through which it is passing in order for the Lebanese people to live in peace and dignity under a mission government to save Lebanon from a social and economic collapse and unprecedented chaos in various fields.”

Although the mufti did not name those obstructing the government formation, Bassil has been accused by Future Movement officials of blocking the formation with his conditions and demand for veto power.

More than four months after his designation on Oct. 22 to form a new Cabinet, Hariri and Aoun remain poles apart over the shape and size of the government, the distribution of key portfolios, namely the Interior and Justice ministries, and who gets to name the Christian ministers.

Lebanon has been left for more than six months without a fully functioning government since Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the explosion that devastated Beirut Port, damaged half of the capital, and killed more than 200 people, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.

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