Lebanon News

Hariri-Joumblatt exchange escalates

Hariri attends a meeting at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: An all-out war of words escalated Monday between Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, overshadowing the progress of officials trying to draft a policy statement for the new government.

Ringing in the new week with an early tweet, Joumblatt criticized what he said was the first item on the draft policy dealing with a borrowed $17 billion. “How greedy they have become,” he said. Joumblatt added, without specifying who “they” referred to: “They are blinded by money and governance.”

Shortly after, Hariri fired back during a speech from the Grand Serail, saying he would work day and night.

“Whoever plans to obstruct the productive process should move aside. If they do not, I will continue even if there is a confrontation.”

The prime minister went on to say that the Lebanese citizens have had enough of political conflicts “and we [the new Cabinet] still have not begun work.”

“If we do not fulfill the demands of the people and solve their problems, we will all go home,” Hariri said. “If someone believes his leadership allows him to walk over the Lebanese citizen, this will not happen. Rather the citizen will walk over all of us in the end if we don’t work for them.”

Once again, Joumblatt came out swinging, this time targeting Hariri and Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil. Calling Hariri “His Majesty,” who “gets angry quickly,” Joumblatt tweeted, “Things cannot be run this way. The state is not your property.”

The tensions between the sides became heated after Joumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party accused Hariri and Bassil of abandoning the Taif Accord, which ended the 1975-90 Civil War.

Joumblatt claimed that there was a “unilateral decision on the [government] formation and the semi-absence” of Hariri’s position. “We ask Saad Hariri, where is the Taif [Accord] that was built by your father and for which he fell as a martyr? I want to know, where is the Taif [Accord] and where is the country heading for?” Joumblatt said Sunday.

Monday afternoon, Hariri responded to Joumblatt a second time.

“Certainly the state is not our property, but it also does not belong to any leader or party. Our project is clear and aims to rescue the state from collapse and send the guardians of corruption to retirement,” Hariri tweeted.

“Tweeting doesn’t form policies. Right?”

Joumblatt has been noticeably agitated that his party did not name all three Druze ministers in the new government.

Bassil’s FPM formed an alliance with Joumblatt’s Druze archrival MP Talal Arslan in the last parliamentary elections, resulting in Joumblatt losing his monopoly over the Druze community.

This was evident when, over the weekend, Joumblatt lashed out at the new Minister of State for Refugee Affairs, Saleh Gharib, describing him as supportive of the Syrian regime. Gharib is loyal to Arslan and a relative of the opposition Druze Sheikh Nasreddine Gharib.

Despite the trading of barbs, the 10-member committee tasked with drafting Cabinet’s policy statement held its first meeting Monday amid hopes that the document would be finalized quickly.

“We hope to finalize the Cabinet policy statement draft tomorrow [Tuesday],” Information Minister Jamal Jarrah told reporters after the meeting, which lasted over three hours. “There are no controversial topics, and the discussion is objective,” he added.

Hariri chaired the meeting at the Grand Serail.

The policy statement is the basis on which the new government will receive a vote of confidence at Parliament.

The Cabinet’s policy statement is expected to highlight several main issues: Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal, relations with Syria amid demands by Hezbollah and its allies to normalize ties with the President Bashar Assad’s regime, the future of more than 1 million Syrian refugees and economic reforms.

Jarrah said the atmosphere was “very positive.”

He said if another “long meeting, such as today’s meeting,” was held Tuesday, it could be the last meeting. “Or we may need another short meeting for a final reading of the draft, hoping to complete it tomorrow [Tuesday].”

On Lebanese-Syrian relations, Jarrah said there wasn’t enough time to address the issue and that it would be discussed Tuesday.

As for Hezbollah’s golden tripartite equation, Jarrah said the same language as the last policy statement would be used.

Asked about Joumblatt’s edginess Sunday, Jarrah played down the debacle as just “discussion and not a dispute.”

Joumblatt was not the only member of the PSP to lash out at Hariri and Bassil. He was backed by his top political aide, Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour, who also accused Bassil of violating the Taif Accord in comments over the government formation process.

“The violation of the Taif [Accord] is clear. ‘Every four or five MPs get a minister’ - who invented this heresy?” Abu Faour told reporters who had gathered at a ceremony to mark his ministry’s official transfer of power.

“It is required that Minister Bassil stop the heresy, and this ‘overindulgence’ in the country’s [affairs] must be decreased,” Abu Faour said.

He was referring to Bassil’s previous comments on the representation of political parties in the Cabinet during the more than eight-month-long formation process.

The pact states only that the designated premier has the prerogative to hold parliamentary consultations to form the Cabinet and, along with the president, sign the decree to form it.

The industry minister also said that unlike usual protocol, the Taif Accord was not distributed during the first Cabinet session along with the Constitution and the Cabinet regulations.

But FPM member and Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab replied shortly afterward that the Taif Accord was indeed given to the ministers, yet Abu Faour “left it at the table as he walked out,” he tweeted.

Also Monday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah called for calm among all political factions.

“If we get into verbal confrontations immediately, the internal situation will not help the government,” he added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 05, 2019, on page 1.

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