Aoun: My political pact with Hariri remains intact
President instead points to ‘external factors’ for delay in Cabinet formation
BEIRUT: A 2016 political settlement that led to the election of Gen. Michel Aoun as president and brought Saad Hariri back to the premiership is still intact, despite differences over the delay in the formation of a new government, Aoun was quoted as saying Monday.
Speaking to visitors at Baabda Palace, Aoun said that although inter- nal factors – the rival parties’ jockeying for key ministerial portfolios – are to blame for the delay in the government’s formation, there are indications pointing to “external factors” influencing the formation process.
As the government formation stalemate entered its third month with no solution in sight, Aoun was reported to have been infuriated by the delay in the formation, and floated the idea of forming a majority government if a national unity government representing all the political parties did not work.
Aoun’s stance drew a quick response from Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri who said last week that he was designated with an overwhelming parliamentary majority to form a national entente govern- ment embracing all the parties.
The reported tensions between Aoun and Hariri over the delay in the government’s formation had raised questions about the fate of the presidential political settlement reached between the two leaders. But Aoun denied the settlement which he called a “pact” was in jeopardy.
“I and Prime Minister Hariri began a dialogue in Rome 2014.
“The pact [settlement] was established within the democratic system.
“We spoke together and we reached [the conclusion] that there are divisions in the country,” Aoun was quoted as saying. Aoun said he had told Hariri that: “You have the majority within the Sunni community and I have the majority within the Christian community, so let’s reach an understanding in order to [help] rebuild Lebanon.”
“Therefore, the pact came to rebuild Lebanon and did not mean a change in [anyone’s] political conviction. All the parties, Hezbollah, the Future Movement and our [Free Patriotic Movement’s] bloc, have appreciated this pact,” Aoun said, adding that: “We thrashed out a pact that unites all the Lebanese.
“We did not abandon it and it did not collapse.”
Noting that he and Hariri are still committed to the pact, Aoun said no one can alter its main goal.
“With this pact, we were able to control the border with Syria. We crushed terror cells. Security apparatuses are working as normal. We
have revitalized tourism. There are political differences, but they are legitimate, and under the ceiling of this pact,” the president was quoted as saying.
Aoun reiterated his call for the adoption of unified criteria in the formation of a new government that reflected the results of the May 6 parliamentary elections. “A unified criterion should be adopted in the government formation,” he said.
“The Lebanese have fought to have a proportional electoral law so that majorities and minorities could be represented.
“This matter has been achieved 100 percent in the [newly elected] Parliament. The [election results] should be reflected in the formation of a new government and should be the criterion that will decide the size of every party,” Aoun was quoted as saying.
He added that there should be no “sectarian monopolization” or “marginalization of any party” in the government representation.
Aoun said part of the government formation problem was that some blocs, which he did not name, exaggerated their parliamentary size, with a view to gaining significant Cabinet representation.
Although he said it was normal for the FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc, headed by Bassil and which comprises 29 lawmakers, including allies – making it the largest bloc in Parliament – to back him, Aoun sounded skeptical about the Lebanese Forces’ support for his presidency. “The Lebanese Forces says they are supporting me. But I don’t see how,” he said.
The FPM and the LF are linked in the 2016 Maarab Understanding that led to an inter-Christian reconciliation and contributed to Aoun’s election as president. Aoun’s remarks come as the FPM and the LF are locked in a bitter struggle over Christian representation in the new government.
The two main Christian parties have refused to budge on their demands for significant Cabinet shares, dashing hopes for resolving the problem of Christian representation and, consequently, for any major breakthrough in the government formation deadlock. Aoun hinted at external factors influencing the government formation process.
“On the face of it, there are internal factors [delaying the government formation]. But there are indications fueling doubts about external factors – like for instance the movement of some ambassadors. But I am not sure, and I don’t have a proof of this,” the president was quoted as saying.
Asked as to when the new government would be formed, Aoun said: “A solution to the Cabinet crisis is a collective responsibility. It is not the responsibility of one party or one side.”
Aoun dismissed recent rumors about a possible collapse of the Lebanese pound in view of the worsening economic situation.
“Had it not been for the strong nerves of Lebanese officials, the pound would have been shaken by these rumors about the financial situation,” he said. “Yes, the economic and financial situation is difficult, but all people experience difficulties, but eventually they manage to fix things and ride out the crisis.”
Aoun appeared to link the convening of all-party talks on a national defense strategy that would address the divisive issue of Hezbollah’s arms to regional developments.
Asked if he would convene national dialogue on a defense strategy following the formation of a new government as he had promised, Aoun was quoted as saying: “Of course. It will be unreasonable for anyone who does not realize the need to examine the situation and political changes taking place in the region. We need to understand these changes in order to be able to know how to defend Lebanon.”
Aoun also defended Lebanon’s ongoing contacts – through General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim – with Syria over the return of Syrian refugees to their country, and other security issues.
“For instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can cut off their [diplomatic] relations with Syria. But we cannot have our relations with Syria severed because it is our vital route to Arab countries,” he said.
The president pointed out that the presence of more than 1 million displaced Syrians in Lebanon was straining the country’s ailing economy and frail infrastructure. “The Syrian refugees are causing a heavy burden on the economy at a cost of $10.5 billion, in addition to 35 to 40 percent unemployment,” he said.
“What can we do? We must talk to the Syrians at a specific level and this is what we are doing [through Ibrahim]. But this is not enough,” he added.
Aoun renewed his previous stances, which called for the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in Syrian without waiting for a political settlement to the 7-year-old war. “We call for the return of displaced Syrians to safe areas in Syria. The size of safe areas in Syria is equal to five times the size of Lebanon’s area,” he said.