BEIRUT: The drawn-out Cabinet formation process is in its “last hundred meters,” with the final obstacle on its way toward a solution, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Thursday.
The government “hopefully will be formed before the end of the year. ... Most of the obstacles are resolved - there is still one obstacle, and I think we will solve it soon,” Hariri said during a Q&A session at the Chatham House think tank in London.
The door to a solution to that obstacle - a demand by six pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs for representation in the upcoming Cabinet - was apparently cracked open Thursday.
Hezbollah MP Walid Sukkarieh, one of the MPs holding up the formation, told The Daily Star that when Hariri “acknowledges that we represent a portion of the elected public, then we can negotiate a formula that we agree on.”
But, he clarified, the six MPs would not compromise on their demand “before Hariri acknowledges our right to representation.”
A source at Baabda Palace also told The Daily Star that an initiative launched earlier this week by President Michel Aoun to solve the near 7-month-old Cabinet impasse, which has seen him meet with Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri, the six MPs and a Hezbollah delegation, was nearing completion.
“Aoun’s initiative is in its last phases - whether it will result in a solution or not remains to be seen,” the source said.
“Aoun listened to Hariri and to the [six MPs] and to Hezbollah in order to try and resolve things from here and there, but there are still conflicting opinions on the matter,” the source said.
Hariri has refused to grant the six MPs a representative in Cabinet on the basis that they do not make up a coherent political bloc.The source said Aoun had proposed representing the MPs from his share with a compromise minister who is not one of the six. “We have to see if they will go along with that.”
“Contacts on the matter are taking place away from the public sphere,” the source said. “We are waiting for Hariri to come back [from London] in order to evaluate the various stances, and we’ll see it in that light.”
While the Baabda source declined to name who had been involved in the closed-door consultations, a senior source close to the formation process said that Berri is holding ongoing meetings “away from the limelight to help secure the atmosphere necessary for the formation of the government.”
Progressive Socialist Party chief Walid Joumblatt said that the Sunni MPs issue needs “compromise from both sides.”
“If Saad Hariri thinks he’s the father of all Sunnis then he should receive them, maybe [he] can convince them,” he said on the MTV show “It’s About Time.” Hariri has refused to meet with the six MPs together, instead insisting on meeting them separately.
Joumblatt pointed to his own concession from an original demand to name all three ministers reserved for Druze in a 30-member Cabinet.
To overcome a roadblock on representation of rival Druze figure Talal Arslan, who heads the Lebanese Democratic Party, Joumblatt allowed for one of the ministers to be named by President Michel Aoun.
A source close to Hariri said that a dinner Wednesday between Hariri and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in London had broached the Cabinet topic, “and several proposals were discussed, but no final solution was found.”
The source close to Hariri said the premier-designate would be back in Beirut at the end of the week.
In London, Hariri headed a high-level delegation to the Lebanon-U.K. Business Investment Forum, aimed at courting British investment in the country.
Hariri worked during the trip to reassure the international community that Lebanon was a safe, lucrative place for investment despite the country’s floundering economy and protracted Cabinet crisis. “We can even do business in Lebanon, even with a caretaker government,” Hariri said.
Hariri explained that the formation process was taking longer than usual because “there is a new set of people in Parliament, and we need to take that into consideration ... This is a democracy, after all.” The parliamentary elections held in May were Lebanon’s first in nine years.
In the absence of a government, Lebanon has been slow to enact reforms that the international community has said it wants to see before unlocking aid pledged during April’s CEDRE conference. The conference, which garnered more than $11 billion in soft loans and grants, sought to bolster Lebanon’s infrastructure and economy.
Fears of an economic collapse have grown as the Cabinet stalemate goes on. “Hopefully once we see the government formed you will see a lot of these issues being resolved because we have a strategy to tackle these problems,” Hariri said.
The premier-designate’s reassurances come less than a week after France’s ambassador to Lebanon, Bruno Foucher, warned that Lebanon’s failure to form a government risked its ability to take advantage of the CEDRE pledges.
He noted that investors interested in the projects proposed in Lebanon’s Capital Investment Plan would not hesitate to look for opportunities elsewhere.
A World Bank source previously told The Daily Star, “If Lebanon doesn’t do anything about this Cabinet impasse, many other countries are in need of this money.”
“There are no two people who differ on the [belief in the] need to form a government; when the World Bank and other institutions push us to form a government, I think this is for the benefit of Lebanon,” Hariri said.
“Most people today really believe in the CEDRE reforms because they know we can’t do business as we did before. We need to change.”