BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri has convinced Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati to put off plans to announce a Cabinet during the weekend come what may, pending a new round of consultations to break the three-month-long deadlock, a source close to the government formation talks said Thursday.
Mikati met Berri at the latter’s residence in Ain al-Tineh Thursday to discuss the latest developments in the Cabinet formation process, the state-run National News Agency reported.
After Mikati’s consultations in the past few weeks with the parties involved in the Cabinet formation efforts failed to produce an agreement on his draft 30-member Cabinet lineup, especially the row over the Interior Ministry portfolio, Mikati has decided to go ahead by announcing “a de facto 30-member government” as early as this weekend, the source said.
“But Berri asked Mikati today to postpone the announcement of the Cabinet to give more time for fresh contacts to solve the problem of the Interior Ministry portfolio,” the source told The Daily Star. “A solution to the dispute over the Interior Ministry is the key to the formation of the government.”
According to the source, Berri, who met Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun at his office at Nijmeh Square Wednesday, told Mikati he felt a “softening” of Aoun’s tough stance on the structure of the Cabinet. “This encouraged Mikati to hold up the announcement of the de facto government for now,” the source said, though it was not known for how long Mikati agreed to delay the announcement.
As part of intensified efforts to end the row over the Interior Ministry and avoid the option of a de facto Cabinet, Mikati met Thursday night with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt. He also had talks with Marjayoun-Hasbaya MP Ali Hassan Khalil, a political adviser to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Berri’s and Nasrallah’s advisers were believed to have carried proposals for a consensus candidate to the Interior Ministry post.
Earlier in the day, Mikati met with former MP Nazem Khoury, a political adviser to President Michel Sleiman, to discuss new ideas to break the Interior Ministry impasse, the source said.
The source said Mikati was coming under heavy popular pressure and mounting calls from the March 8 and March 14 parties to speed up the Cabinet formation to deal with the economic crisis and other vital issues. “Mikati made the decision on a de facto Cabinet after all the efforts failed to bridge the gap between Sleiman and Aoun over the Interior Ministry,” the source said.
Mikati has been trying since his designation on Jan. 25 to form a new government to replace caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s toppled Cabinet. But his attempts have hit snags mainly over the key Interior Ministry post.
Sleiman initially insisted on retaining caretaker Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, while Aoun, who had initially demanded that the Interior Ministry post be allotted to a member of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, had dropped this demand but insisted on naming a consensus candidate. In an attempt to break the deadlock over the Interior Ministry, Baroud said he had told Sleiman three months ago he did not want to join the new Cabinet.
Aoun Wednesday warned Mikati against announcing a de facto Cabinet, saying such a government was doomed to failure. He also lashed out at Sleiman and Mikati, blaming them for the delay in the Cabinet’s formation.
“Imposing a Cabinet lineup on us is a dangerous precedent and an irresponsible act,” Aoun said during an interview on FPM-affiliated OTV station Wednesday night. “Such a lineup will fail and will not even make it to Parliament.”
Aoun also renewed his demand that the Interior Ministry be allotted to a member of his bloc, claiming Baroud’s performance at the ministry was unsatisfactory.
Meanwhile, caretaker Education Minister Hassan Mneimneh ruled out the Cabinet’s imminent formation. He said Aoun’s remarks on OTV have confirmed there was no common ground among the parties of the new parliamentary majority except their hostility toward March 14. “This does not signal the birth of the Cabinet.”
Batroun MP Antoine Zahra, a Lebanese Forces official, urged Mikati to form a Cabinet excluding politicians to address the people’s affairs, and blamed external factors for the delay in the Cabinet’s formation.
“The external climate is obstructing the government’s formation. What is required is clear: annexing the country to the regional axis that Hezbollah and General Michel Aoun are counting on to take over the country,” Zahra said.