BEIRUT: Lebanon risks descending into an open-ended Cabinet crisis with all the grave consequences this entails for the country’s ailing economy and stability if President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri refuse to budge on their conflicting positions on a new government, political sources said Thursday.
The Cabinet formation process, already stymied by a disagreement between Aoun and Hariri, has been further compounded by the president’s accusation that the premier-designate has not been truthful regarding the formation, deepening a crisis of confidence between the two leaders and ramping up political tensions in a country reeling from a series of multiple crises, including an economic meltdown.
“The government formation process is at a standstill. There is no imminent essential development to break the deadlock. There are attempts, which have not yet been completed, to break the wall that emerged [between Aoun and Hariri]. I cannot say there is an essential program of action, but attempts are underway to end the tensions,” a political source familiar with the process told The Daily Star. He was referring to the long-simmering tensions that reached a climax this week between Aoun and Hariri following the former's allegations, which have brought the formation process back to square one.
Referring to Hariri’s reported visit to Abu Dhabi, the source said: “So far, there is nothing new on the Cabinet formation pending the return of Prime Minister Hariri from abroad because he is an essential party in this issue. There is a desire from all the parties that this crisis be tackled and the current situation not be allowed to persist. Should this situation continue, the Cabinet formation stalemate will drag on indefinitely, threatening to throw the country into an open-ended crisis.”
According to the source, the chances of making a breakthrough in the Cabinet formation impasse, now in its sixth month, depended largely on the rival parties responding to the ongoing attempts to soften their unyielding positions.
“There is an atmosphere to find a solution to the crisis. But where will this atmosphere lead to and what results will it produce, we have to wait for Hariri’s return from abroad in order to be able to say whether the horizons are open or closed. But so far the [Cabinet] horizons are closed,” the source said.
A source close to Hariri told The Daily Star Thursday that the premier-designate, who visited Turkey last week, planned to make several foreign trips to restore Lebanon’s relations with Arab and foreign countries.
Aoun’s allegation that Hariri was not being truthful -- 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 the premier designate 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 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.
Since his designation on Oct. 22, Hariri has been striving to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan experts to implement reforms urgently needed to unlock billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the brink of a total economic collapse.
But his attempts have foundered over a dispute with Aoun regarding who gets to name the Christian ministers and who controls two key ministries -- Interior and Justice -- and demands by Bassil for veto power and representing political parties in the government. In addition to refusing to grant veto power to any party in the next government, Hariri is reportedly also opposed to allotting the Interior and Justice ministries to Aoun and the FPM.
Future officials said Hariri would not bow to pressure from Aoun and Bassil aimed at forcing him to step down or meet their conditions for the Cabinet formation.
“There is a decision to prevent the government formation and disrupt the country, and subsequently push the country toward further collapse. This is all because there is a person named Gebran Bassil, backed by his father-in-law. This person, after knowing that he will be outside any Cabinet lineup because the next government will be made up of nonpartisan specialists, and after the US administration imposed sanctions on him on charges of corruption, wants to punish all the Lebanese,” a senior Future Movement official told The Daily Star Thursday.
Referring to Bassil’s accusation that Hariri was seeking to seize Christian rights, the official said: “Bassil has tried to take matters to a sectarian tendency and a sectarian clash, but we have foiled his attempt because we are non-sectarian people. Now Bassil is emboldened with his father-in-law’s signature to prevent the government formation. Consequently, he and anyone supporting him in obstructing the government formation will be responsible for the problems and collapses that will happen in the country.”
Future officials have said that Hariri is still waiting for a response from Aoun to a Cabinet lineup made up of 18 nonpartisan specialists he presented to the president last month. Aoun responded to Hariri’s suggested Cabinet list with a counter-proposal that was viewed as a rejection of the premier-designate’s lineup.
Visitors to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who often tries to give a sense of optimism about overcoming the Cabinet crisis, sounded pessimistic.
“When faced with a general political paralysis, a social and economic tragedy and an accumulation of difficulties and disasters, Speaker Berri is the main leader to resort to. But unfortunately, and despite the speaker’s usual [optimism], today we cannot talk about optimism,” MP Hagop Pakradounian, head of the Armenian Tashnag Party, told reporters after meeting Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence.
Pakradounian, whose party is an ally of the FPM, called on all rival factions to review their calculations and put the country’s interests above any other considerations. “Today is not the time for political interests and temporary gains because if we lose the nation, we will be losing the citizens,” he said.