BEIRUT: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, known for his endemic optimism even at the peak of the Lebanese crisis, sounded downbeat for the first time Tuesday about the formation of a new government, dashing hopes for breaking a three-month-long Cabinet stalemate that has thrown the country into a power vacuum.
In the meantime, sources close to Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati signaled that he would announce “a de facto government” if the row over the Interior Ministry portfolio, which is being contested by President Michel Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, was not resolved soon.
Berri described the situation in Lebanon as “appalling” as a result of the country being left without a government. He spoke during a meeting at his residence in Ain al-Tineh with a delegation from the Arab and international news agencies currently visiting Beirut to attend a conference to mark the Silver Jubilee of the state-run National News Agency.
Asked whether he was still optimistic about the Cabinet’s formation, Berri said: “I don’t want to talk about this subject. I feel hopeless and gloomy when politics becomes impossible to understand. This means that the country is in stagnation.”
Berri, part of the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance that backed Mikati to form a new government on Jan. 25, said that Mikati tried, for the first month after his designation, to form a national unity Cabinet, including both the March 8 and March 14 groups, and that he encouraged him in this.
But when the March 14 coalition decided not to join, putting conditions on their participation in a national unity government, the Cabinet’s formation efforts were confined to one group, Berri said, referring to March 8.
“Therefore, the obstruction [of the Cabinet’s formation] for more than two months is no longer understandable,” he added. Berri said that is why he called last month for rain prayers in the hope it would help the formation of the government.
“What matters now is that we hope not to have to hold funeral prayers [for the Cabinet],” said Berri, known for his sarcastic remarks.
Berri’s remarks came as Mikati’s attempts to form a new government to replace caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s toppled Cabinet have stumbled, mainly over the key Interior Ministry post.
The struggle between Sleiman and Aoun over who should name a consensus candidate to the Interior Ministry portfolio is holding up the government’s formation. Sleiman had initially insisted on retaining caretaker Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud.
Aoun, who had initially demanded that the post be allotted to a member of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, has now dropped this demand but he is also insisting on naming a consensus candidate.
In an attempt to break this deadlock, Baroud said he had told Sleiman three months ago that he did not want to shoulder any ministerial responsibility, in the hope that this would facilitate the Cabinet’s formation.
A source close to Mikati said that if the dispute over the Interior Ministry portfolio was not settled soon, the prime minister-designate would go ahead and announce “a de facto government” in coordination and agreement with Sleiman.
“Prime Minister [-designate] Mikati is giving a chance for a new and final round of talks on the Cabinet’s formation. If no agreement is reached, he will go ahead and unveil a de facto government in agreement with President Sleiman,” the source told The Daily Star Tuesday night. A de facto government will be made up of 30 members, including politicians and technocrats, he said.
The source said the Interior Ministry was still at the root of the Cabinet deadlock. While Sleiman is ready to accept “a neutral candidate” to take over this ministry, Aoun still insisted that the portfolio be allotted to a member of his bloc, the source said.
Aoun accused Sleiman and Mikati Monday of obstructing the formation by failing to distribute the ministerial portfolios in a draft 30-member Cabinet lineup. He also blamed “foreign interference” for the delay.
Berri denied that the delay in the Cabinet’s formation was linked to the upcoming indictment into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “There is no link whatsoever. On the contrary, since [Mikati’s] designation [to form a new Cabinet,] no one has spoken about the indictment,” he said.
The indictment, to be handed down by the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, is widely expected to implicate some Hezbollah members in Hariri’s assassination, raising fears of sectarian strife. Hezbollah has denied involvement in Hariri’s killing. Berri said that Cabinet formation was not held up because of the uprisings in the Arab world. He stressed that the hurdles were “Lebanese and very petty.”
Berri also rejected the argument that Syria, because of weeks of anti-regime popular protests across the country, has advised that the government’s formation is not rushed. “I say that Syria wants the Cabinet [formation] to take place yesterday and not today,” he said.
Meanwhile, MP Marwan Hamadeh of the March 14 coalition rejected attempts to name an army officer as a consensus candidate for the Interior Ministry portfolio. Reading a statement to reporters at the Parliament building, Hamadeh appealed to Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi not to bow to demands from the new Parliament majority to name candidates from the army.
“We hope that Gen. Jean Kahwagi will not involve himself in a political maneuver aimed at targeting him and the military establishment, a stronghold of the country’s stability,” Hamadeh said.
Sources close to the Cabinet formation process said that Kahwagi has proposed Brig. Paul Mattar as a possible consensus candidate. While Aoun has approved Mattar, Sleiman has not yet given a clear answer, the sources said.
Hamadeh warned that some leaders of the new Parliament majority were leading the country down one of two fatal roads: Vacuum or a government crisis.
He called on Sleiman and Mikati to shoulder their historic responsibilities by forming “a government of conscience, not a government of hatred, a national salvation government on the basis of a strict implementation of the National Accord Document and all U.N. resolutions.”