BEIRUT: MP Gebran Bassil Sunday called for raising the number of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to 20 or 22 ministers as a way out of the monthslong government standoff, a proposal that is likely to be spurned by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
The head of the Free Patriotic Movement kept up his diatribe against Hariri, accusing him of violating the provisions of the French initiative and constitutional rules in the formation of a new Cabinet, saying he could not be trusted to implement reforms. Bassil denied Hariri’s accusations that either President Michel Aoun or the FPM had demanded a blocking third [veto power] in the new government.
Bassil, who heads the FPM’s 24-member Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest in Parliament with the biggest Christian representation, spoke at a televised news conference devoted mainly to responding to Hariri’s speech last week in which the premier-designate bluntly accused Aoun of blocking the formation of a new government by insisting on veto power.
Bassil’s escalatory speech reflected the spiraling tensions between Aoun and Hariri over the formation of a new government and subsequently, was bound to further complicate the already stalled formation process.
Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar entirely ruled out the possible expansion of the proposed 18-member Cabinet.
“Gebran Bassil is still dealing with the Cabinet issue on the basis of ‘give me my share’ in order for things to go smooth. All the proposals Bassil is talking about revolve on this issue: ‘Give me my share and if I get my share, the Christians will get their rights,’ ” Hajjar told The Daily Star.
“This matter will not pass. The government has been decided and its terms are clear: A government of 18 nonpartisan specialists. There has been an agreement [between Aoun and Hariri] on the issue of an 18-member government. It’s final,” he added.
The Future Movement struck back at Bassil, accusing him of seeking to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians with his constant harping on Christian rights in the government.
The long presentation made by Bassil on the government, the Constitution, representation criteria and a repetition of stances “did not carry anything new or open even a small hole in the wall of obstruction and disruption,” the Future Movement said in a statement.
It said that Bassil’s presentation, which accused Hariri of obstruction, suspension of the work of the Constitution, and the talk about betrayal and backstabbing entirely applied to the FPM leader.
Bassil had put the “presidency under house arrest in a denial of changes that arose after the Oct. 17,” the statement said, referring to the nationwide popular uprising that erupted on Oct. 17, 2019 against the ruling political elite blamed for the crippling economic and financial crisis, the worst in decades.
“It is unfortunate for the Lebanese to witness through Bassil’s rhetoric the transfer of the presidency‘s decision from Baabda Palace to Mirna Chalouhi Center [the FPM headquarters] and to listen to the head of the ruling party as if he is the exclusive spokesman in the name of [Aoun’s] strong mandate,” the statement said. “But in brief, all this that has been said shows it’s hopeless with Gebran.”
Dismissing Bassil’s remarks as “pipe dreams,” the Future statement stressed that Hariri was only concerned with what is issued directly by the president rather than by proxy.
Responding to Bassil, the statement said: “One final word: The ongoing attempt to inflame sectarian tensions will not succeed Gebran no matter how much you try to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians."
Bassil, referring to the deepening rift between Aoun and Hariri that has kept the crises-ridden country without a fully functioning government for more than six months, said: “We want a solution [to the Cabinet crisis]. The solution exists in Lebanon and in the Constitution, neither outside the country nor outside the Constitution. The solution is clear: The president and the prime minister-designate are equal partners in the formation process. Together they must agree on everything: on the shape of the government, the number [of ministers], distribution of portfolios and names. This is our Constitution. Our system is a parliamentary one based on partnership. They must secure Parliament’s confidence. In this stage, we want a government that can gain the confidence of the international community if we want its assistance.
“Therefore, without the satisfaction and consent of the president the government will not be formed, and without the satisfaction and consent of the premier-designate the government will not be formed. It is not that one forms the government and the other signs its decree. When the premier-designate tells the president ‘I form [Cabinet] and you sign,’ he will be slamming the country’s unity and destroying the Constitution,” Bassil said.
Throughout his speech, Bassil vowed to continue the battle to defend the rights of Christians and proposed the expansion of the envisaged 18-member Cabinet as a solution to the crisis.
“We essentially are not eager to participate in the government. We will not grant confidence to those who want to infringe on our rights,” he said. “We, as a Free Patriotic Movement, has an initiative which the president has nothing to do with. The initiative calls for raising the number of ministers from 18 to 20, this is not to take an additional Christian minister for the president. We will accept that the [Christian minister] be allotted to the Marada [Movement], but not to the prime minister. It’s better if they raise the number to 22 or 24 in order to respect the principle of specialization and for one minister not to be assigned two ministries that are not related to each other.”
Bassil said the FPM insisted on “justice and balance” in the distribution of portfolios, and one principle to be applied to all the parties in the naming of ministers.
Four months after he was designated on Oct. 22 to form a new government to deliver reforms stipulated in the French initiative to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975- 90 Civil War, Hariri and Aoun remain at odds over the shape and size of the government and the distribution of key portfolios, namely the Interior and Justice ministries.
Bassil accused Hariri of using the veto power issue in a bid to name the Christian ministers. “Neither the president, nor the FMP demanded one-third plus one. We are not lying. If we wanted this, we would have said it publicly ... The one-third [demand] is a fictitious and fabricated story aimed at naming the Christian ministers,” he said.
“We want a government headed by Hariri despite our conviction that he could not be relied on [to implement] reforms and that’s why we did not nominate him [for the premiership],” Bassil said. Nonetheless, he added, “there is an interest for [Hariri] to form a government and shoulder responsibility with the president after he fled from it in October 2019 ... Let him form a government made up of specialists without us and stop wasting time and blaming others.”
He was referring to the resignation of Hariri’s government in October 2019 in the aftermath of the nationwide street protests against the deteriorating economic conditions.
Bassil said there are internal and external factors that are hindering the government formation. “The first internal reason delaying the Cabinet formation is a violation of the public agreement reached among us at the table with the French President [Emmanuel Macron] known as the French initiative,” he said. He added that the second internal reason was a violation of the rules, the Constitution and the National Pact requirements on power sharing.