Lebanon News

Cabinet expected before Aoun marks two years as president

Policemen try to open a gutter in a flooded street after heavy rains in Beirut's Ramlet al-Baida, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Lebanon will have a new government before the second anniversary of President Michel Aoun’s election on Oct. 31, as the problem of Christian representation appears to have been resolved, political sources said Thursday.

“Our government will be formed very soon, and, God willing, before the second anniversary of President [Michel] Aoun’s election,” Aoun’s son-in-law and Free Patriotic Movement leader, Gebran Bassil, tweeted Thursday night. Meanwhile, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star that Lebanon will have a new government by early next week, expressing optimism that politicians were on the cusp of finding solutions to the few remaining obstacles, after five months of political wrangling over Cabinet shares.

A ministerial source told The Daily Star that “forming a government is as good as done,” adding it would be formed “in the next few days, and maybe even Friday.”

“There are no obstacles to forming the government after negotiations reached their end,” the source said, adding, “In the past week, we’ve begun discussing the content of the policy statement.”

Speaker Nabih Berri told visitors at his Ain al-Tineh residence Thursday, “The Prime Minister-designate is optimistic, but it is yet to be seen how things will be concluded, and we hope for positive results.” This came after Berri’s aide, Caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, held an unpublicized meeting with Hariri Thursday, the ministerial source said.

Local channel MTV reported that Hariri would soon present a Cabinet lineup to Aoun. This would mark the first time that anything more than a framework formula laying out the respective shares of each party would be taken to Baabda Palace.

While optimism over an imminent government formation has been repeatedly reported, and ultimately proved unfounded, the Baabda source mentioned a specific solution to the feud between the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, which has been a major obstacle in the formation process.In line with its long-standing demands, the LF would be given four portfolios, the source said, along with the post of deputy prime minister.

These portfolios would include the Social Affairs, Labor and Culture ministries, and a fourth one he did not name. He said this fourth portfolio would likely be given from Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s share marking an outside solution to the issue, as the FPM had previously refused to cede any of the 11 ministerial portfolios it has demanded.

The source said the LF had asked the Progressive Socialist Party for the Education Ministry, but the party had refused. He said the Justice Ministry, coveted by the LF, would also remain part of President Aoun’s Cabinet share.

Meanwhile, a source close to Hariri told The Daily Star that there had been no developments revealed after a meeting between the premier-designate and Youssef Fenianos, the Marada-affiliated caretaker public works minister.

And despite the across-the-board optimism, the source close to Hariri said there was “nothing new” in the formation process. “We have to wait for the political meetings to take place,” he said.

Corroborating that point, Caretaker Information Minister Melhem Riachi, a close adviser to LF leader Samir Geagea, told The Daily Star there was “nothing new” regarding Cabinet formation and that they were “waiting for our meeting with [the] premier[-designate] in the coming days,” either Friday or Saturday.

Hariri notably only had one political publicized meeting Thursday upon his return from Riyadh, where he had been attending a foreign investment conference. It had previously been reported that Hariri would head to Baabda Palace to meet with Aoun to discuss the Cabinet formation process, which Wednesday entered its sixth month of deadlock.

Striking a less promising tone, the Baabda source added: “Whoever doesn’t enter the government that will be his or her decision.”

Voicing a similar point of view, FPM MP Alain Aoun earlier Thursday said, “No one is going in the direction of” excluding the LF from participating in the next government, “but if they voluntarily choose not to participate, this would be unfortunate.”

Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan was quick to hit back, saying there would be no government formed without the LF.

MP Aoun told The Daily Star that Cabinet formation “is with Hariri now, and the main issue is the Lebanese Forces share.”

Asked whether Hariri would soon meet President Aoun, MP Aoun said: “It’s all tied to Hariri: If he succeeds in solving the problem of the LF’s share, it makes sense. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

MP Aoun had earlier in the day said the entire government was being “held up” over a single portfolio, in a clear reference to the LF’s demand for four ministerial portfolios, rather than the three that the FPM are willing to facilitate. However, he told The Daily Star that the issue of the Public Works Ministry, which the FPM wants to take from the Marada Movement, “is also still present.”

Meanwhile, government formation is weighing on Berri’s plans to hold this Parliament’s second legislative session, for which the speaker did not set a date at a preparatory meeting of Parliament’s secretariat Thursday.

“A legislative session will be called for at the closest time possible, probably Nov. 4 or 5, but it’s tied to the government [formation],” Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli told The Daily Star. “If it’s formed, then we’ll hold the legislative session directly after Parliament gives the new Cabinet confidence,” he added. Parliament’s Secretary-General Adnan Daher told The Daily Star that the agenda for the session had already been decided upon and that it included a large number of provisions, though he refused to say what exactly they were tied to “until next week.”

Political factions are in disagreement over whether Parliament should even convene while the government is in caretaker mode. Despite this, Berri last month brought together lawmakers for a two-day legislative session to endorse what was deemed “legislation of necessity,” namely laws tied to the CEDRE donor conference held in April, where the international community pledged more than $11 billion for infrastructure and economic projects.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2018, on page 1.

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