Lebanon News

Geagea, Hariri talk Cabinet on eve of Aoun’s return

File - Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri receives Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea on Sept. 14, 2017. (The Daily Star/ Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT/NEW YORK: Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea paid Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri a visit Thursday to discuss the stalled Cabinet formation process, ahead of President Michel Aoun’s return from New York, a political source told The Daily Star.

A statement from Hariri’s office said the two leaders discussed political developments, “particularly the ongoing contacts to form the new government,” with discussions continuing over lunch.

Sources with knowledge of the meeting told the Central News Agency that it had focused on informing the premier-designate of the LF’s stances and on the Cabinet options that were agreeable to Maarab. The sit-down came ahead of an expected meeting between Hariri and Aoun after the president returns Friday from a visit to the U.S., where he addressed the U.N. General Assembly.

Shortly before departing New York Thursday evening Beirut time, Aoun told visitors that he had a right to express his opinion on the matter of government formation, as it was he, along with Hariri, who would sign off on the formation decree. But “the prime minister-designate is the one who forms [the government],” he added.

Questions were raised again recently over the prerogatives of the president in the formation process, after Aoun announced that he had several reservations about a draft formula that Hariri presented to him on Sept 3. The formation process has been deadlocked since Aoun turned down Hariri’s draft.

Aoun also refrained from setting a time limit for Hariri’s formation bid, telling visitors Thursday that the process takes time because there are criteria that must be respected.

He also said the “presidential compromise” between him and Hariri that brought Aoun to power came “after Christian reconciliation, and with national consensus that translates into a national unity government.”

Aoun added that there was an understanding between Hezbollah and the premier-designate that Hariri would remain prime minister as long as his Future Movement represented a majority of Sunnis in Parliament.

The political source said no meetings had yet been scheduled between Aoun and Hariri, nor between Hariri and Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement that Aoun founded.

“If something positive doesn’t happen, then there’s no need for a meeting. There needs to be a reason for Hariri to go up to Baabda” the source said, in reference to the seat of the president.Aoun and Bassil are at the center of the Cabinet formation impasse well into its fifth month due to their demands for a large majority of Christian representation in the next Cabinet. The FPM leaders are also backing Lebanese Democratic Party head Talal Arslan in his bid to secure one of the three ministerial portfolios set aside for the Druze sect in a 30-member government. Arslan’s bid defies Progressive Socialist Party chief Walid Joumblatt’s insistence that his party name all three Druze ministers.

“Communications are ongoing Hariri met with [one of Joumblatt’s top aides MP] Wael Abu Faour yesterday and Geagea today but it remains to be seen if there’s anything new,” the source said. “Let’s wait until Aoun comes back and we’ll see.”

But Joumblatt Wednesday restated that the PSP’s Cabinet share should be based on the results of the parliamentary elections where his party won all but one of the eight Druze seats. “Our share is three ministers, of which one is a key portfolio,” he said.

Separately, the political source could not confirm whether reported meetings had taken place between Hariri and Aoun, and between Hariri and Bassil, the Saturday before the FPM pair departed to New York. Local daily Al-Akhbar Thursday reported what it alleged were “secret” meetings.

When asked for comment by The Daily Star, Hariri’s office declined to discuss the report.

Political sources meanwhile told the Central News Agency there was a possibility of a Cabinet breakthrough if the PSP accepted naming just two ministries. In that formula, the third minister would be named jointly by Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri. The sources also said the issue of Christian representation between the FPM and the LF could see a breakthrough if Aoun accepts to withdraw claims to name the post of deputy prime minister, allowing the LF to hold onto it, as well as holding two weighty ministerial portfolios and a ministry of state.

The FPM has been demanding control of 11 of the 15 ministries set aside for Christians, leaving three to the LF and one to the Marada Movement.

Hezbollah sources meanwhile told the Central News Agency that there would be no government until “after Christmas and New Year,” adding, “The government is in Siberia, and its average temperature is below zero.”

Kataeb Party chief Sami Gemayel reiterated his call for a government of “experts” to be formed swiftly in order to move away from the “conflict between different factions, and begin follow-up on the Russian initiative.”

The latter point was made in reference to a Russian plan to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 28, 2018, on page 1.

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