BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri will meet soon to explore an appropriate solution for the stalled formation of a new government as soon as possible, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Tuesday.
Diab made the announcement after a meeting with Aoun at Baabda Palace as part of an initiative aimed at breaking the monthslong Cabinet stalemate by clearing the way for an ice-breaking meeting between the president and the premier-designate following rising tensions between the two leaders that have brought the government formation process back to square one.
Ahead of his meeting with Aoun, Diab had met separately with Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
“I discussed with his excellency the president the conditions in the country, particularly the issue of forming a government. I have felt full readiness on the part of the president to reactivate the formation process. I have also felt the same thing from Prime Minister Saad Harri and Speaker Berri,” Diab told reporters after his meeting with Aoun.
“I think there will be a meeting soon Inshallah between President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri at a time they deem fit to follow up on this issue [Cabinet formation] and reach an appropriate solution for the birth of the government as soon as possible,” he added.
In a clear allusion to enduring differences between Aoun and Hariri that have hindered the formation of a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms in line with the French initiative to rescue Lebanon, Diab said: “I have felt from everyone that the resolved and positive points are much more than some obstacles that still need to be sorted out politically ... Priority for Lebanon and the Lebanese is to tackle daily social, economic and financial issues. This happens when a government is formed.”
Diab said the speed in forming a new government eagerly awaited by the Lebanese to rescue them from one of the worst economic and financial crises in the country’s history depended on the president and the premier-designate. “The country needs a government at the quickest time,” he said.
Commenting on Diab’s meetings with the three top leaders, an official source told The Daily Star: “Diab’s endeavor aims to reactivate the government formation process with focus on the importance of arranging a meeting between President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri because it is the road to a solution.”
Diab’s talks with Aoun, Hariri and Berri focused on ways to accelerate the formation of a salvation Cabinet to deal with the country’s multiple crises and deliver reforms demanded by the international community as a prerequisite for the release of billions of dollars in promised foreign assistance to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.
“Diab’s calls on various leaders are part of an initiative aimed at speeding up the formation of a new government,” a top aide to Diab told The Daily Star. “Diab’s initiative also aims to pave the way for a meeting between President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri,” he said.
Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the massive explosion that devastated Beirut Port, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.
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 implement reforms in line with the French initiative, came to a head on Jan. 11 when Aoun was seen in a 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 crises-ridden country.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Hariri at his Beirut Downtown residence, Diab said he and the premier-designate were in agreement that priority was for the quick formation of a new government.
“The country today is in dire need of a political consensus between all concerned parties ... There was an agreement with Prime Minister Hariri that the priority is to form a government as soon as possible to deal with the repercussions of successive crises that have befallen on Lebanon and negatively affected Lebanon and its people,” Diab said. “Hence, we call on all parties to build on the positive [elements] that we reached in terms of forming the government. Premier Hariri expressed his readiness and openness to consult with all parties on this issue in order to reach a safe shore as soon as possible, and address the daily problems that the Lebanese citizen suffers from on the social, financial, economic and other levels,” he added.
Diab said he was seeking to play any positive role in order to get “the government formation machine restarted as soon as possible.”
He added that the fallout of the leaked video, the cause of the latest tensions between Aoun and Hariri, had been overcome. “Lebanon has overcome the leaked video episode and priority now is for the formation of a government,” Diab said.
Hariri said he was open to resolving the Cabinet formation crisis, now in its sixth month.
Thanking Diab for his visit, Hariri said: “We discussed several matters, most importantly the need to form a government as soon as possible. Throughout the previous stage, I showed openness and willingness to come and go several times [to Baabda Palace] so that we form the government. My position is clear in this regard, and I thank Prime Minister Diab for what he is trying to do in this matter.”
Referring to a frightening surge in daily coronavirus infections despite a nationwide lockdown in the country to stem the spread of the pandemic, Hariri appealed to the Lebanese to comply with preventive measures set by the government to protect their families.
In reply to a question, Hariri said he was working to secure coronavirus vaccines. “Hopefully, we are working on this, and you will see me travel more and I will continue to insist on getting the vaccine as soon as possible,” he said.
Two days after Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai called on Aoun to invite Hariri for a “reconciliation” meeting to agree on the swift formation of a new government, there was no comment from the president’s office. It was the second call to be made in less than month by the Maronite patriarch who is trying to narrow differences between the president and the premier-designate over the Cabinet formation.
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 economic crisis has been aggravated by the spread of COV-19 pandemic and the grave consequences of the deadly 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.