Political activity intensified in bid to break Cabinet impasse

The intensification of efforts to break the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock was in line with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s declaration that this week should be decisive for the formation of a new government to save Lebanon

  
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new cabinet at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new cabinet at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: Political activity has been stepped up in a bid to untangle the last remaining knots and subsequently clear the way for the formation of a proposed Cabinet of 24 nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms and rescue the country from total economic collapse, political sources said Wednesday.

The intensification of efforts to break the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock was in line with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s declaration that this week should be decisive for the formation of a new government to save Lebanon, which can no longer endure the series of crises from which it is reeling.

Following the failure of local, regional and French mediation efforts to resolve the Cabinet crisis, Berri is pushing on with a proposal calling for the formation of a 24-member government of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third plus one (veto power) for 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.

But Berri’s initiative has already hit snags over a rift between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri regarding who should name two Christian ministers who are not part of the president’s Cabinet share.

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

Therefore, Berri’s efforts have focused on Bassil, who has been accused of blocking the government formation with his tough conditions.

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.

Key aides from Berri and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah have been meeting with Bassil in a bid to persuade him to soften his stance on the naming of the two Christian ministers.

The last of these meetings was held Tuesday night 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, and appeared to have made progress in the Cabinet formation process.

The 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.

An official source said the meeting between Berri’s and Nasrallah’s aides and Bassil was “positive and signaled willingness to reach a Cabinet breakthrough.”

“The participants reviewed a Cabinet formula on the distribution of portfolios among sects and parties. A minor amendment was made to the proposed formula. They did not talk about names of potential ministers,” the source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star Wednesday.

The source said Ali Hassan Khalil was supposed to meet Hariri later Wednesday to brief him on the outcome of the talks with Bassil.

“Hariri’s response to the formula agreed on by Bassil and Berri’s and Nasrallah’s aides is crucial. The Cabinet picture should crystallize this week in light of Hariri’s response,” the source added.

A statement issued by Bassil’s media office Wednesday said the meeting, which discussed the political and Cabinet developments and participants “exchanged ideas and proposals in a positive atmosphere, has made progress that would facilitate and accelerate the government formation within the [National] Pact and constitutional rules and in line with the rules of the French initiative.”

The OTV channel, which is affiliated with the FPM, said the meeting with Bassil was positive and made progress in the Cabinet formation efforts. It said Bassil had agreed to the proposal to solve the problem of naming the two Christian ministers presented by Berri’s and Nasrallah’s aides and the proposal was waiting for Hariri’s response.

Hariri, meanwhile, was waiting for the results of ongoing contacts to resolve the Cabinet crisis before pondering other options to deal with the problem, including the possibility of relinquishing his efforts to form a new government.

“Hariri cannot continue serving indefinitely as a designated prime minister unable to form a government. Hariri is said to have told Speaker Berri that he is giving his initiative one more week to rresolve the Cabinet crisis after which he will step down,” a political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star Wednesday.

The FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc called on Hariri to decide on whether he wants to form a government or not.

In a statement issued after its online weekly meeting chaired by Bassil Tuesday, the bloc said the Lebanese are still waiting for “positive results” from Berri’s efforts to resolve the Cabinet crisis and the premier-designate’s favorable response to these efforts.

Warning of the dire consequences entailed by the prolongation of the Cabinet crisis, the bloc urged Hariri to act to form a government according to the rules of the National Pact and the Constitution and on the basis of the French initiative.

“Since it is impossible to prolong the state of waiting as a result of the pressing circumstances, the bloc sees that the premier-designate must decide on whether he wants to form [a Cabinet] or not,” the statement said. “All those concerned [with Cabinet formation] must assume their responsibilities with regard to exposing facts in order to push the formation forward because disregarding them or twisting them will allow for further waste of precious time,” it added.

A member of Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc asserted that the speaker was continuing his efforts to facilitate the government formation.

“Speaker Berri’s motives are to avert the big crash and put the country and the people on the recovery track. The compulsory passageway to this is through the formation of a government,” MP Ali Bazzi told Brent Saddler, CNN’s former senior correspondent by phone.

He said that in the face of multiple crises in Lebanon and their destructive repercussions on the lives of the Lebanese, “doors of communications, building bridges and restoring confidence should not be closed.”

Commenting on Berri’s initiative, Aoun’s visitors quoted him as saying: “We have dealt positively with this initiative as we did with previous ones. We are still waiting for its results, especially since Speaker Berri is insisting on it and expressing optimism about its conclusion. He asked for an additional deadline and we want to know for how long Speaker Berri will be patient.”

Aoun also denied Future Movement’s accusations that he was seeking to gain veto power in the new government. “I say it with a full mouth and for the thousandth time I don’t want a blocking one- third plus one,” he was quoted as saying.

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.

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