The Daily Star (Lebanon)
Cabinet efforts stepped up ahead of Aoun-Hariri meeting
PM meets with Bassil for first time in six weeks; holds talks with Siniora, Mikati, Salam
BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is set to meet with President Michel Aoun in the next few hours to present him with a slightly modified Cabinet formula as efforts intensified to overcome the last two remaining obstacles over the Christian and Druze representation that are delaying the formation of a new government.
The planned meeting, the second this month between Aoun and Hariri after the president had rejected the prime minister-designate’s first draft Cabinet lineup on Sept. 3, was deemed crucial because it would herald whether the government formation deadlock, now in its fifth month, was finally on its way to being resolved.
“There is an intensified flurry of activity, signaling that progress was being made in the formation of the government,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Monday night. The source said a meeting between Aoun and Hariri could take place at any time this week.
Former MP Walid Joumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, is also expected to meet Aoun Tuesday as part of ongoing efforts to break the Cabinet gridlock.
Ahead of his meeting with Aoun at Baabda Palace, Hariri met Monday night with caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. It was Hariri’s first meeting in six weeks with the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, who has been accused by Lebanese Forces officials of blocking the government formation by seeking to prevent the LF from getting a significant Cabinet share commensurate with the results of the May parliamentary elections.
Hariri had earlier met separately with caretaker Information Minister Melhem Riachi and MP Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, discussing with them the problems of the Lebanese Forces’ Cabinet share and the Druze representation respectively, the two major stumbling blocks to the government formation.
Hariri also met at his Downtown residence with former premiers Fouad Siniora, Najib Mikati and Tammam Salam, consulting with them on the latest developments concerning the formation of a national entente government in which the main political parties are represented.
The meeting was viewed as a show of renewed support for Hariri in his attempts to form a new Cabinet following a constitutional row last month over the president and the prime minister-designate’s prerogatives in the government formation. It also came days after Bassil had proposed a criterion for the representation of major blocs in the new Cabinet that calls for one minister for five MPs.
Bassil was also reported to have met last week with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah who reiterated his call for the swift formation of the government.
During the three-hour meeting held at Nasrallah’s residence in Beirut’s southern suburbs Friday night, the Hezbollah leader stressed that the “time has come to form the government rapidly and put an end to the vacuum that is threatening the nation’s fate amid local and regional developments,” the Central News Agency reported. It said the two sides agreed to continue contacts and coordination in the next stage.
Hezbollah officials could not be reached to comment on this meeting.
Riachi, one of three LF ministers in Hariri’s outgoing Cabinet, sounded optimistic about ongoing attempts to break the government standoff. He said Hariri was also optimistic that a new government would be formed within a few days.
“I discussed with the prime minister-designate the atmosphere related to the government formation. Things, God willing, are in a more positive direction. We are hoping for the best that in the next few or more days there will be a government in the country,” Riachi told reporters after his meeting with Hariri at the latter’s residence.
“The prime minister is optimistic and he is working hard to achieve this goal. Certainly, there are obstacles and bumps. But, God willing, in the
way Prime Minister Hariri is working, in which we have great confidence, it is possible to reach results,” he added.
Without giving details, Riachi said Hariri was working with “great earnestness” to eliminate obstacles facing the government formation.
Riachi rejected the theory that the LF’s demand for significant Cabinet representation based on the results of the elections was holding up the government formation. “The Lebanese Forces’ [Cabinet] representation size has been agreed upon in the last meeting between the prime minister and Hakim [LF leader Samir Geagea] and there remain some minor details related to the [Cabinet] composition in general,” he said. He added that the LF had made concessions that reached the level of “sacrifices” to help in the government formation.
The FPM and the LF, the country’s two major Christian parties, have been locked in a fierce struggle for more than four months for Christian representation in the next government.
Bassil has toughened his stance by reiterating that the LF should not be allocated more than three ministers, despite having booted its MPS from eight to 15 in the elections. But Riachi said Monday that Bassil might have changed his negative stance “positively.”
As a positive development that could help hasten the government formation and defuse tensions between the LF and the FPM, Riachi cited a statement issued Monday by the FPM that called on its supporters to halt media campaigns against the LF.
“The head of the Free Patriotic Movement Minister Gebran Bassil calls on members and supporters to stop media campaigns against the Lebanese Forces party and not to be dragged into any kind of reactions to direct or indirect [verbal] attacks by LF officials or supporters against the FPM,” the statement issued by the FPM’s media committee said.
The statement came a day after Bassil launched his most scathing diatribe yet against the LF, implicitly accusing it of seeking assistance from outside powers to impose what he called “exaggerated demands” for ministerial portfolios.
For his part, Arslan said he was ready to meet with his Druze rival, Joumblatt, to reach common ground regarding Druze representation in the next Cabinet.
“I told Hariri and I am saying this now publically that I am ready for any meeting that brings Joumblatt and me together, sponsored either by Hariri or by President Michel Aoun,” Arlsan said after meeting Hariri.
Despite this apparent show of flexibility, Arslan nevertheless emphasized that he will never accept being removed from the political equation in the country. He appears to have been referencing previous demands from Joumblatt that were interpreted as attempts to exclude Arslan from the Cabinet.
Meanwhile, Parliament is slated to meet at 11 a.m. Tuesday to elect members of its Secretariat, as well as heads and members of parliamentary committees. The Parliament session will be chaired by Deputy Speaker MP Elie Ferzli as Speaker Nabih Berri is currently in Geneva attending the 139th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly.