Mikati says Aoun positive on his Cabinet proposals

Two days after his designation, Mikati presented Aoun with a preliminary proposal for the distribution of portfolios among sects

  
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meets with Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 28, 2021. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun meets with Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 28, 2021. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati Wednesday kept up his optimism about forming a new government soon, saying he received a positive response from President Michel Aoun for his Cabinet proposals.

Wednesday’s meeting with Aoun was the second in 48 hours since Mikati’s appointment with a parliamentary majority as Lebanon’s new prime minister, reflecting the billionaire businessman’s resolve to speed up the Cabinet formation.

Two days after his designation, Mikati presented Aoun with a preliminary proposal for the distribution of portfolios among sects. Mikati wants to form a Cabinet of of 24 independent and nonpartisan specialists in line with the French initiative.

“I have given President Aoun my proposals for a Cabinet and I felt acceptance from him, while I took his observations into consideration. God willing, we will reach a government soon,” Mikati told reporters in a terse statement after his meeting with Aoun at Baabda Palace. He did not give details.

But a statement released by the presidency’s media office said that, in discussing the formation of a new Cabinet, Mikati presented Aoun with a list on the distribution of ministerial portfolios.

“The president was informed of it as a prelude to making his observations on it and is studying it in depth in conformity with the new government’s general policies,” the statement said, adding that discussions between the two leaders will continue Thursday afternoon.

However, despite Mikati’s optimism about breaking the political deadlock that for nearly a year has left Lebanon without a fully functioning government, a political source said there are two major obstacles that need to be resolved to facilitate the Cabinet formation: a rift over who controls the two key Interior and Justice ministries and the naming of Christian ministers -- two hurdles that were largely blamed for derailing former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s attempts to form a Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists nearly nine months after his designation.

Mikati, backed by Hariri, was reported to be insisting on assigning the Interior portfolio to a Sunni, while Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement want it to be allotted to a Christian.

These two ministries will have key roles in the next stage. The Interior Ministry will supervise next year’s parliamentary elections, and the Justice Ministry will have an important role in the government’s promised fight against rampant corruption and the waste of public funds, largely blamed for the crippling economic and financial crisis.

Also, Mikati will have to grapple with the possibility of the FPM headed by MP Gebran Bassil refusing to grant the new Cabinet a vote of confidence after its decision not to participate in the government.

Mikati, already twice a prime minister, was designated Monday, less than two weeks after Hariri stepped down after Aoun rejected his proposed Cabinet lineup of 24 nonpartisan specialists to implement a string of reforms contained in the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its severe economic and financial crunch, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Shortly after his designation, Mikati said the new government’s first mission is to implement the French initiative, saying it is in the interest of Lebanon and the Lebanese economy.

The stalled French initiative, endorsed by Lebanon’s rival political leaders during French President Emmanuel Macron’s second visit to Beirut on Sept. 1, called for the formation of a “mission” government made up of nonpartisan specialists to enact essential reforms, including overhauling the ailing electricity sector and conducting a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts.

Although Lebanon is wrestling with a series of crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that is hitting the Lebanese hard and threatening them with poverty and hunger, Mikati said he was confident of the ability to overcome the crisis, citing “international guarantees” that encouraged him to take up the challenge.

Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt to form a government, promised to form a government of experts, in line with a French road map conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.

Following Mikati’s designation, the international community called on Lebanon’s political elite to swiftly form a “competent and capable” government to carry out reforms to rescue Lebanon, which is in the throes of a severe economic and financial crisis, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the Civil War.

A spokesperson of the US State Department Tuesday renewed Washington’s call for the quick formation of a fully empowered government in Lebanon that is committed to implementing decisive reforms following Mikati’s designation.

James Cleverly, British minister of state for Middle East and North Africa, said in a tweet that the Lebanese people need a government capable of implementing the long-overdue reforms. “Lebanon’s leaders must not waste more time,” he said.

Similar calls for swift government formation were made Monday by the European Union and France.

France, which has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since the port blast, this month said it would host an aid conference on Aug. 4 to "respond to the needs of the Lebanese, whose situation is deteriorating every day."

The date of the conference coincides with the first anniversary of the Beirut Port blast which is widely blamed on decades of negligence by the country's ruling class.

Macron had in August 2020 hosted a first aid conference in the wake of the Aug. 4 port explosion, rallying some 250 million euros in pledges.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government for nearly a year after Diab submitted his Cabinet’s resignation on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of last year’s massive explosion that pulverized Beirut Port, killed 210 people, wounded thousands and damaged entire neighborhoods in the capital.

In addition to implementing essential reforms, the new government would be tasked with restarting negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package and supervising next year's parliamentary elections.

Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt to form a government, promised to form a government of experts, in line with a French road map conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.

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