BEIRUT: Political attention Monday shifted to President Michel Aoun’s position on the Maronite patriarch’s call on him to invite Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri for a “reconciliation meeting” to agree on the formation of a “salvation Cabinet” to deal with the country’s multiple crises and enact reforms demanded by the international community.
Given the rising tensions between the president and the premier-designate caused by a leaked video in which Aoun was shown calling Hariri a liar over the government formation process, many politicians expressed concerns that Aoun’s possible rebuff of Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai’s call threatened to plunge the crises-ridden country into a prolonged Cabinet deadlock with all the dire consequences this entailed for the crumbling economy and fragile stability.
There was no comment Monday from the president’s office, a day after Rai issued the call for a “reconciliation meeting” between Aoun and Hariri to agree on the swift formation of a new government.
Hariri’s return to Beirut Sunday night from a visit to the United Arab Emirates was expected to hasten Aoun’s declaration on Rai’s call.
A source at Baabda Palace said Aoun’s position would be known after Hariri’s return from a foreign trip. “I don’t know what the president’s position [on Rai’s call] will be. We will see when Prime Minister Hariri returns to Lebanon,” the source told The Daily Star Sunday.
Similarly, there was no immediate comment from Hariri after his return to Beirut on Rai’s call, the second to be issued in less than month by the Maronite patriarch who is trying to narrow differences between the president and the premier-designate over the formation of a proposed 18-member Cabinet made up of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative.
Asked whether Hariri would accept Rai’s call for a reconciliation meeting with Aoun, a source close to the premier-designate told The Daily Star Monday: “The Constitution governs the relationship between the president and the prime minister.”
In making the call on Aoun to invite Hariri for a “reconciliation meeting,” Rai expressed his fears of a possible social unrest as a result of the crippling economic crisis that is hitting the Lebanese hard and has put half the country’s 6 million population below the poverty line.
"The tragic state of the country and the people [cannot tolerate] any delay in the government formation. In this situation, we wish that his excellency the president will take the initiative and invite the prime minister-designate to this [reconciliation] meeting,” Rai said in his Sunday sermon at his seat in Bkirki.
Rai’s call came as Lebanon continues to reel from one of the worst economic and financial crisis in its history and mounting health hazards posed by a frightening surge in coronavirus infections. The economic crisis has been aggravated by the grave consequences of the massive Aug. 4 explosion that pulverized Beirut’s port, damaged half of the capital, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused billions of dollars in material damage.
While a French initiative to rescue Lebanon remained deadlocked after rival Lebanese leaders failed to agree on the swift formation of a “mission government” to implement a slew of economic and administrative reforms stipulated in the initiative, it remained to be seen whether Rai’s new call for a reconciliation between Aoun and Hariri would materialize this time.
Meanwhile, while Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is coming under pressure to intervene to help break the Cabinet deadlock, now in its sixth month, other mediators are gearing up to patch up the rift between Aoun and Hariri over the government formation.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli, an ally of Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement headed by MP Gebran Bassil, is mediating with Baabda Palace and the FPM in a bid to bridge the gap with Hariri, a political source said.
General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who had previously mediated in disputes between the president and the prime minister, will also be in contact with both Aoun and Hariri to facilitate the Cabinet formation, the source added.
Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the port blast.
Berri was quoted by visitors as saying he was waiting for tensions between Aoun and Hariri to ease before intervening. This was confirmed Sunday by MP Mohammad Khawaja, who belongs to Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc.
Long-simmering tensions between the president and the premier-designate, who last month publicly traded accusations of responsibility for obstructing the formation of an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative, came to a head on Jan. 11 when Aoun was shown in the leaked video calling Hariri a liar.
Aoun’s accusation has exacerbated the impasse in the Cabinet formation process, already stalled by a disagreement between the president and the premier-designate over the distribution of key ministries. The video episode has deepened a crisis of confidence between the two leaders and ramped up political tensions in the country.
Some politicians warned that Lebanon risked descending into an open-ended Cabinet crisis with all the grave repercussions this carried for the country’s ailing economy and stability if Aoun and Hariri refused to budge from their conflicting positions on a new government.
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 verge of a total economic collapse.
But his attempts have stumbled 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 Aoun’s son-in-law, 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 have said Hariri would not bow to pressure from Aoun and Bassil aimed at pushing him to step down or meet their conditions for the Cabinet formation.