BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai in his Sunday sermon appeared annoyed that President Michel Aoun rebuffed his call to invite Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri for a “reconciliation” meeting to agree on the swift formation of a “salvation Cabinet” to tackle the country’s multiple crises.
This comes as attempts by mediators, including caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, Rai and General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim have so far failed to arrange an ice-breaking meeting between the president and the prime minister-designate to resolve their differences on the formation of a new government.
Subsequently, the failed mediation efforts have raised fears of a prolonged Cabinet standoff, now in its sixth month, with all the grave consequences it entails for the country.
Aoun and Hariri have not met for more than a month since differences emerged between the two over a draft Cabinet lineup the premier-designate presented to the president on Dec. 9. The two leaders last met at Baabda Palace on Dec. 23 in the 14th encounter since Hariri’s designation on Oct. 22 to form a new government. But the meeting ended on a negative note after the two leaders remained poles apart over the distribution of key ministries and after Aoun presented Hariri with a counter-Cabinet proposal that was deemed a rejection of the premier-designate’s suggested Cabinet list.
Rai’s call earlier this month for a reconciliation meeting between Aoun and Hariri was the second to be issued in less than month by the Maronite patriarch, who is trying to bridge the gap 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.
In a statement released Friday by his media office, Aoun rejected Future Movement claims that he and his son-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Gebran Bassil, were obstructing the Cabinet formation. He also denied claims that he and Bassil demanded veto power in the next government.
But in an apparent snub of Rai’s call, the statement said Aoun would not invite Hariri for Baabda and was waiting for him to come up with a new Cabinet proposal that respected fair representation.
"The president of the republic will not repeat the invitation for the prime minister-designate to come to Baabda because Baabda Palace is still waiting for the prime minister-designate to come up with a governmental proposal that takes into account the criteria of fair representation in accordance with the rules of the Constitution, while circumstances are very pressing on more than one level to form a government,” the statement said.
Rai in his sermon Sunday made no mention of his mediation bid. Instead, in a tone reflecting his deep frustration and anger with the country’s political leaders for failing to agree on the formation of a new government, the patriarch said addressing top officials: “Don’t you fear God, the people and the court of conscience and history? How can unyielding political positions that are destructive for the state as an entity and constitutional institutions be persisted and under what national conscience and under what justification?”
Addressing those responsible for the government formation, mainly the president and the premier-designate, Rai said: “Why don’t you form a government while the people are screaming from pain, starving as a result of poverty and dying from disease? Why don’t you form a government while hospitals are overwhelmed with [coronavirus] patients and stores are running short on foodstuffs?
“Why don’t you form a government while the monetary and economic crisis has reached its peak, the economy is collapsing and agricultural products are damaged? Why don’t you form a government while the people are standing at the doors of banks begging for their money and they don’t find it?” he added.
Referring to 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, Rai said: “Why don’t you form a government while Beirut is a disaster-struck capital, the port is devastated and the oil and gas wealth is uncertain? Why don’t you form a government while the country has entered the final chapter of collapse?”
Commenting on the latest row between Aoun and Hariri over their constitutional powers in the Cabinet formation, Rai said: “You officials, the Constitution has been created to be implemented and not to be a cause of a row, and to be a source of agreement and not a source of disagreement.”
Lebanon has been left without a fully functioning government since Diab’s Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the port blast, although it has been serving in a caretaker capacity.
Rai’s comments come as Aoun’s latest escalatory tone against Hariri has dealt a heavy blow to mediation attempts seeking to hasten the formation of a new government, effectively dashing hopes for any breakthrough in the Cabinet crisis.
Aoun’s escalation, which drew a quick rebuke from Future Movement officials, has ignited a new war of words between Future and FPM officials as the two sides trade accusations for responsibility in obstructing the formation of a new government eagerly awaited by the Lebanese to rescue them from multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown that has sent the pound crashing and losing more than 80 percent of its value since 2019 and threatening the Lebanese with poverty and even starvation.
Aoun’s tough stance on the already-stalled Cabinet formation process has also deepened a crisis of confidence between the two leaders and ramped up political tensions in the crises-ridden country that is also grappling with a frightening surge in coronavirus infections and mortality rate despite a total nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the pandemic.
Responding to the statement issued by Aoun’s media office, Hussein Wajeh, Hariri’s media adviser, said in a series of tweets Friday: “If the circumstances are very pressing to form a government, it will be better for those concerned with the matter to go ahead with the prime minister-designate [Cabinet] proposal that has been presented to the presidency which takes into account the fair representation in accordance with the Constitution and not in accordance with political and partisan quotas."
Future MP Mohammad Hajjar said Aoun’s statement indicated “lack of a sense of responsibility toward the country and the Lebanese.”
“It is clear that there is an attempt to prevent the formation of a government in any form unless this team [Aoun and Bassil] secures complete control of the government and its decision-making,” Hajjar told The Daily Star Sunday.
The statement released by Aoun’s media office came more than a week after tensions rose between the president and the premier-designate over a leaked video on Jan. 11 in which Aoun was shown calling Hariri a liar in regards to the Cabinet formation process.
Further adding to the spiraling tensions, the FPM renewed its diatribe against Hariri, implicitly accusing him of seeking “internal domination” of the country.
A statement issued by the FPM’s politburo after an electronic meeting chaired by Bassil Saturday called on Hariri to “realize the gravity of inaction and the negative repercussions for not acting to form the government which more than at any time before needs the highest degree of national support and solidarity. This means that everyone must adhere to the rules of the [National] Pact and the Constitution and abandon attempts to put the hand on the political rights of any Lebanese component.”
Referring to Syria’s “tutelage” over Lebanon that ended in 2005, the statement said: “The era of external tutelage has ended. It is an illusion for some to try to replace it with an internal domination.”