BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri will not bow to pressure from a concerted campaign launched by his opponents aimed at forcing him to step down, Future Movement officials said Wednesday, as the stalled Cabinet formation process remained at a dead end with no solution in sight.
Hopes for breaking the Cabinet formation deadlock, now in its sixth month, have been shattered by President Michel Aoun’s accusation against Hariri of lying over the formation process, deepening a crisis of confidence between the two leaders and ramping up political tensions in a country facing a series of 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, raised 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.
In what appeared to be coordinated hostile attacks on the premier-designate, Aoun’s accusation came just a day after Bassil launched a blistering diatribe against Hariri, blaming him for the country’s worst economic crisis in decades and saying he could not be trusted to implement reforms. Aoun’s accusation marked a precedent in the relationship between a Maronite president and a Sunni prime minister in the history of multi-sectarian Lebanon.
“Definitely, if Saad Hariri does not change the criteria he is using in the government formation -- which denies veto power to any party -- and if Hariri does not accept a government in which they [Aoun and Bassil] are allowed to name [Christian] ministers and get veto power, they are definitely working to force him to resign or step down. But this matter will not happen,” Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star.
Hajjar said Hariri, who was designated to form a new government on Oct. 22, was “as determined as ever to form a Cabinet of nonpartisan and competent specialists who have integrity without granting a blocking third [veto power] to Bassil or others in line with the French initiative.”
A senior Future Movement official said Hariri’s efforts to form a new government have become extremely complicated following the video episode and Bassil’s escalation against the premier-designate.
Despite the campaigns launched against him, Mustafa Alloush, a former Future MP and a member of the Future Movement’s politburo, reaffirmed that Hariri would not step aside and Bassil would not be granted veto power in the next government.
“Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s mission is extremely stalled and it can be said that [the government formation] is entirely blocked and solutions are not within reach at least for now,” Alloush said in an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa. He said the real problem over the Cabinet formation was not between Hariri and Aoun as much as it was between Hariri and Bassil.
“Therefore, it is impossible to find common ground between President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri as long as Bassil visits the presidential palace whispering to obstruct the [government] formation and the state as a whole,” Alloush said.
“Neither will Hariri will step down, nor will Bassil or others from the political system get veto power in the government. This means that we are poised for a prolonged standoff that might go on, with Aoun’s mandate ending [in 2022] with a resigned government,” he added.
Both the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party, outspoken critics of Aoun’s mandate and Bassil, viewed the video episode as part of a campaign aimed at pushing Hariri to step aside.
“The video was leaked deliberately with a direct message: Give up the designation your excellency the prime minister. We don’t want to cooperate with you. Why don’t you understand?” the LF media office said in a statement commenting on the video in which Aoun, speaking from under a face mask, during a meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab at Baabda Palace, was heard saying: “There is no [Cabinet] formation. He [Hariri] said he had given me a paper. He is lying. He made [false] statements.”
Despite strained ties with Hariri, PSP leader Walid Joumblatt telephoned the premier-designate Tuesday night, to show solidarity after Aoun accused him of lying.
During the phone conversation, Joumblatt affirmed his “absolute rejection of the campaign to which the premiership’s position is subjected.” Joumblatt also condemned the “personal insults that targeted Prime Minister Hariri despite some casual political differences.”
Joumblatt’s phone call came a day after the PSP and its parliamentary Democratic Gathering bloc issued a joint statement saying: “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.”
While the crises-ridden country continued to reverberate from the negative fallout of the leaked video, the FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc headed by Bassil called on Hariri to resume his contacts with Aoun to agree on the formation of a reform-minded government.
“The bloc is waiting for the prime minister-designate to contact the president to form a government that respects unified criteria and be reform-minded and productive with its ministers and its program,” said a statement issued after the bloc’s electronic meeting chaired by Bassil Tuesday night.
The bloc urged Hariri to resume his Cabinet formation efforts as soon as possible “away from any influence, by adhering to the Lebanese sovereign decision and the utmost need for the creation of a salvation government.”