BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun's accusations against Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri of lying over the Cabinet formation process are likely to bring the already-stalled process back to square one, deepening a crisis of confidence between the two leaders and heightening political tensions in a country reeling from multiple crises.
Aoun’s accusation, which came in a leaked video that went viral on social media and was broadcast by local TV stations Monday night, continued to reverberate in the political landscape Tuesday, raising serious questions on whether Hariri would eventually be able to form a new Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative, given the tough conditions set by the president and his son-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Gebran Bassil for the formation.
Aoun’s accusation, unprecedented in the relationship between a president and prime minister in Lebanon’s history, came just a day after Bassil launched a blistering diatribe against Hariri, blaming him for the crippling economic crisis and saying he could not be trusted to implement reforms.
Bassil’s new political escalation, which has become a common occurrence since Hariri was designated to form a new Cabinet on Oct. 22, underlined deep differences between Aoun and the premier-designate over the shape and makeup of the next government desperately needed to rescue the country from multiple crises, including an economic meltdown.
During a meeting between Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab at Baabda Palace Monday ahead of a meeting of the Higher Defense Council that declared a “state of health emergency” between Jan. 14-25, including a total lockdown and round-the-clock curfew in an attempt to curb a frightening surge in coronavirus infections, Diab asked the president about the Cabinet formation.
According to the video aired by local TV stations, Aoun, speaking from under a face mask, was heard saying: “There is no [Cabinet] formation. He [Hariri] said he had given me a paper. He is lying. He made lying statements. Now, he went to Turkey. What impact will this have [on Cabinet formation]? See how lucky the Lebanese are.” Diab, who appeared to be stunned by Aoun’s remarks, did not utter a word.
Hariri Monday night responded to Aoun by posting on his Twitter account quotes from the Bible dealing with “cunning and cheating.”
A source at Baabda Palace Tuesday said the aired video was “taken out of context and was incomplete.”
“Hariri said that the president had given him a list of names [of ministers]. This is not true. The president did not give Hariri any list of names,” the source told The Daily Star.
But Hussein Wajeh, Hariri’s media adviser, blamed Baabda Palace for the latest spat between Aoun and Hariri.
“The decision-making circles at Baabda Palace insist on involving the president in divisive files and leaking random stances like the farce video that was circulated yesterday [Monday],” Wajeh posted on his Twitter account.
“The latest novelty promoted by the [Baabda] circles was published in one of the local agencies which included a repeated symphony that holds Prime Minister Saad Hariri responsible [for the Cabinet deadlock] and talks about constitutional steps that the president might take if Prime Minister Hariri did not adapt to the Baabda atmosphere,” Wajeh wrote.
He described the talk about “constitutional steps” Aoun might take as a “threat” to overthrow the Constitution and use it as a card per demand that would bring the country back to pre-1989 Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 Civil War and stipulated equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians.
“The Lebanese know that the root of the problem lies with the [Baabda] Palace circles and that Prime Minister Hariri is waiting for a decision to end the state of denial and open the door to a government of specialists that will confront the coronavirus danger and put solutions and reforms on the track to be implemented. Other than that, it will be battles with illusions and attempts to undermine the French initiative,” Wajeh added.
Amid the gloomy Cabinet formation prospects, some politicians expressed fears that accusing Hariri of lying over the Cabinet crisis, now in its sixth month, and Bassil’s escalation against the premier-designate, could be aimed at forcing Hariri to step down nearly three months after his designation.
But Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar said Hariri would not relinquish his effort to form a government of nonpartisan specialists despite the fierce campaigns launched against him by Aoun and Bassil, describing the leaked video as “shameful.”
“The circulated video is shameful and does not befit the position of the presidency in the country,” Hajjar said in a TV interview.
“Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is doing what is dictated on him by the Constitution. There are three NOs required by the situation today and the need to rescue the country. These are: There will be NO veto power in a government of specialists who have integrity and whose mission is to carry out reforms, salvation and rebuild the devastation caused by the catastrophic explosion at Beirut Port, NO surrender to the will of obstruction which the [Aoun’s] presidency team wants to impose, and NO apology [Hariri stepping down],” Hajjar said.
“The campaigns against Hariri are aimed at returning to a political government based on quotas that does not conform at all with Lebanon’s interests because Lebanon’s interests today are a government made up of nonpartisan ministers who are competent and have integrity without a veto power,” the Future MP added.
The Progressive Socialist Party headed by Walid Joumblatt, an outspoken critic of Aoun and Bassil, weighed in on the crisis, saying the leaked video constituted a “big insult” not only to the premiership’s position, but also to the presidency’s position.
“The video scandal came to confirm what has been known before [Hariri’s] designation through the president’s warning letter to the MPs that he and his team do not want Saad Hariri to form a government. It seems that for the resistance team [Hezbollah and its allies],either a government is formed as they want, or else there will be no government so that they can continue ruling as they want through this [caretaker] government,” said a joint statement issued by the PSP and its parliamentary Democratic Gathering bloc.
Referring to Bassil’s remarks in which he said that Hariri could not be trusted to form a government and run the country’s affairs, the statement said: “We really need enormous efforts to draw limits in the face of this futile situation that persists in violating everything while administering the country’s affairs and in the face of its malignant epidemic that is no longer threatening the state and its institutions only, but is constituting a danger to the country as a whole.”
The video episode and Bassil’s escalation cast doubts on Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai’s mediation efforts to resolve differences between Aoun and Hariri with a view to accelerating the formation of a government of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms needed to unlock promised foreign aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.