Hariri appears set to step down over government obstruction

A Future Movement lawmaker said Hariri’s decision to relinquish his efforts to form a new government nearly eight months after his designation by a parliamentary majority was a “serious option”

Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon March 18, 2021. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS

Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon March 18, 2021. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is headed to stepping down next week in a dramatic move reflecting his frustration with the continued obstruction by President Michel Aoun and MP Gebran Bassil of his attempts to form a new government to enact reforms and avert total economic collapse, a political source said Sunday.

“Prime Minister Hariri is poised to declare his decision to step down next week in response to the continued obstruction by President Aoun and MP Gebran Bassil of his mission to form a new government,” the political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

A Future Movement lawmaker said Hariri’s decision to relinquish his efforts to form a new government nearly eight months after his designation by a parliamentary majority was a “serious option.”

“The talk about Prime Minister Hariri’s decision to step down is not final yet. But stepping down is a serious option for Prime Minister Hariri, even though he has not yet decided on it,” Future MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star Sunday.

Hariri’s planned decision comes as Lebanon’s highest Sunni religious authority has thrown its weight behind him in his deepening rift with Aoun over the formation of a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists, warning against infringing on the premier-designate constitutional powers. This came in statement issued Saturday after a meeting of the Higher Islamic Religious Council chaired by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian and attended by Hariri.

During the meeting held at Dar al-Fatwa, the Sunni mufti’s seat, Hariri briefed the council’s members on the latest political developments, the obstacles facing the formation of a new government and the steps he had taken to overcome them for the sake of the nation’s interest.

Ahead of the council’s session, Hariri held a 30-minute closed meeting with Derian and was believed to have informed the mufti of his intention to step down in the face of continued obstruction by Aoun and his son-in-law, Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, of his attempts to form a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third plus one [veto power] granted to any side to implement a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War. A source at Dar al-Fatwa said Derian and other council members have asked Hariri to delay for now his decision to step aside.

Speaking to reporters after the council’s meeting, a grim-faced Hariri hinted at the possibility of announcing his decision to step down.

“I came to Dar al-Fatwa and I met with the Religious Council and I explained to the mufti and the council what happened with me during the past seven months. A constructive and important dialogue was held during the meeting,” Hariri said. “The country is experiencing political and economic deterioration every day. My eyes are on the country and so are the eyes of the mufti and the council. What concerns us in the end is the country. This is the essence of what took place during the council’s meeting. God willing, we will come back and talk later,” he added, declining to take journalists’ questions.

Hariri’s planned decision to step aside comes as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s latest initiative has so far failed to break the Cabinet stalemate, now in its tenth month. A series of meetings between Bassil and key aides of Berri and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah have failed to persuade the FPM leader to soften his tough conditions on the Cabinet formation by rejecting Hariri’s insistence on naming Christian ministers.

The Cabinet formation process has been stalled for months over a rift between Aoun and Hariri regarding who should name two Christian ministers who are not part of the president’s Cabinet share.

Former Future MP Mustapha Alloush told The Daily Star that the meetings between Bassil and Berri’s and Nasrallah’s aides failed to resolve the two remaining obstacles, namely who should name the two Christian ministers and Bassil’s rejection of Hariri’s request that the FPM grant a confidence vote to the new Cabinet even though Bassil has declared that his party would not join the government.

Aoun and Bassil 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 Berri hasd promised to find a compromise to resolve this problem.

In a strongly worded statement that appeared to take aim at Aoun and Bassil, both of whom have been accused by Hariri and Future MPs of blocking the government formation with their insistence on gaining veto power, the Higher Islamic Council voiced support for Hariri and warned against introducing “new norms” in the Cabinet formation process. The council stressed that it “cannot allow the premier-designate’s powers to be touched and any attempt to [introduce] new norms with regard to the Constitution or the Taif Accord is unacceptable under any pretext.”

“The council asserts its support for the premier-designate and his powers within the framework of the Constitution emanating from the National Accord Document,” the statement said. “The council holds responsible for the delay in the [Cabinet] formation those who try to devise ways, means and methods that cancel the contents of the National Accord Document, which is a source of unanimity by Lebanese leaders who are keen on Lebanon’s independence, unity, sovereignty and Arabism.” The National Accord Document refers to the 1989 Taif Accord which ended the Civil War and stipulated equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians.

The council stressed the importance of the need to maintain the results of the French initiative as well as that of Berri, hoping that these initiatives would produce “a solution soon to emerge from the dark tunnel in which Lebanon was put.” It called on feuding political leaders to “work with the premier-designate to come up with a government that will save Lebanon from what it is reeling and put it back on the right path.”

Citing the closure of pharmacies due to severe supply shortages and gas stations due to fuel shortages, the council slammed the ruling class’ “apathy and indifference” toward the crippling economic, social and economic crises facing Lebanon. “Lebanon appears to be like a sinking ship facing a strong storm in a rough sea, while its captain and sailors do not care about its fate and instead engage in futile arguments over the ministers’ 'genders' and their allegiance,” the statement said.

Hajjar warned that Hariri’s decision to step down would have “negative repercussions” on the country’s ailing economy and the situation in general.

“In our estimation, the last opportunity to rescue the country, which Prime Minister Saad Hariri is able to lead through the formation of a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists, will not be available with others,” Hajjar said. He added that the international community, if there was no government under the specifications it sought and which Hariri was working to put together, would not come forward with its promised aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of total economic collapse.

After securing the Sunni religious authority’s support for any move he might take, Hariri Saturday also met with former premiers Najib Mikati, Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam to inform them of his intention to step aside.

In remarks published by the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat Sunday, Hariri said all options were on the table and that he would not unilaterally take any option whether to stay on or step down without returning to Berri, the Higher Islamic Council and the three ex-premiers.

Hariri said he supported Berri’s initiative, which he said was “derived from the spirit of the rescue initiative proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron” during his second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1. The French initiative salvages the country from its crises, Hariri was quoted as saying.

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