BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun holds the key to breaking the four-month Cabinet stalemate that has thrown the country into a power vacuum, caretaker Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi said Thursday.
“There are steps that need to be taken by General Aoun which will open the door to the formation of the government,” Aridi told The Daily Star.
Aridi did not say what these steps were but he stressed that an understanding between Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati would definitely help get the stalled Cabinet formation process off the ground.
Aridi said contacts between Mikati and the parties concerned with the government formation efforts were continuing in a bid to reach an agreement on the distribution of portfolios in a draft 30-member Cabinet lineup.
He renewed his call for a swift formation of a government to deal with the country’s worsening economic crisis. “A government must be formed quickly to handle the financial, economic and social crises from which all the Lebanese are suffering,” Aridi said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman arrived in Beirut from Amman on a two-day visit for talks with President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri and Mikati. It was not immediately known if Feltman would meet any leaders from the March 14 coalition as caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri is currently in Saudi Arabia.
Among other topics, Feltman was expected to discuss the Cabinet impasse during talks with Lebanese officials.
His visit comes one week after U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly reiterated the U.S. position, after meeting Mikati, that the international community would assess its relationship with the new government based on its makeup, policy statement and the actions it takes concerning Lebanon’s international obligations, including the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Aridi is a member of the parliamentary bloc headed by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, who renewed his call Monday for a swift formation of a new government, warning that Lebanon was facing “major dangers” and its future was at stake.
It was Jumblatt’s second warning in a week to the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition to act to form a new Cabinet.
Aridi said that following Jumblatt’s first warning to the new parliamentary majority on May 9 in which the PSP leader implicitly threatened to withdraw his bloc’s support for the new majority, an agreement was reached to end the row over the Interior Ministry portfolio between Sleiman and Aoun.
Asked what would Jumblatt’s bloc do next if the new majority failed to form the government, Aridi said: “We will continue our contacts with all the parties, including President Sleiman, Speaker Berri and Prime Minister Mikati … This situation must not be allowed to drag on.”
Taking a direct swipe at Aoun, whose tough demands for the lion’s share of Christian participation have largely been blamed for the delay in the Cabinet’s formation, Aridi said: “Raising the ceiling [of demands] will not be useful. Discussion [on portfolios] must take place in a calm and realistic manner.”
For his part, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai renewed his call for a swift formation of the government. Speaking to reporters at Beirut airport upon his return from a visit to Rome, Rai said political bickering among rival factions threatened to destroy the country.
“We regret that a new government has not been formed yet. All the people say this. Everybody knows that we are on the decline in economic terms … Commercial activity, which constitutes the backbone of our Lebanese life, has declined by 30 percent,” Rai said, adding: “I want to ask Lebanese officials: Do they want to destroy the country? Is political action [designed] to obstruct state mechanics and constitutional institutions and paralyze the country? This is not a political action. Rather, it is a subversive action.”
Earlier Thursday, Aridi called in a speech for a prompt formation of the government to confront “challenges” and problems facing the country.
“We will remain at odds in politics. But we must not disagree on Lebanon. Our political differences must not be destructive for Lebanon,” he said at the opening of the Joint Arab Marine Study and Research Center in Koura.
After Aridi spoke to The Daily Star, a source close to Mikati said there had been no contacts in the past two days between the prime minister-designate and mediators from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement over the Cabinet dilemma, reflecting the continued deep differences over the distribution of portfolios.
Mikati’s talks Tuesday night with Marjayoun-Hasbaya MP Ali Hassan Khalil, a political adviser to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, came after a one-week suspension of talks on the Cabinet crisis and it failed to bridge the wide gap over the distribution of portfolios.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Mikati reiterated his demand for parliamentary blocs to provide him with lists of names they propose for the Cabinet.
Mikati was told that Aoun upheld his demands, including his insistence that his bloc be allotted five Cabinet seats for Maronites out of his share of 10 portfolios, a source close to the formation talks said. The source said Mikati would resume consultations on the Cabinet formation once he receives “softer demands” from the March 8 alliance.
Lebanon has been under a caretaker government since the collapse of Hariri’s Cabinet on Jan. 12. Mikati has been struggling since Jan. 25 to form a new government. Hopes for the formation of the government rose last week after an agreement was reached to end the row over the Interior Ministry portfolio, which was contested by Sleiman and Aoun. The nomination of retired police officer Brig. Gen. Marwan Charbel as a consensus candidate to the Interior Ministry has been approved by all parties.