BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri Thursday said he was still waiting for President Michel Aoun’s agreement on a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms, while denying reports that the government formation awaited Saudi Arabia’s approval.
In a statement released by his media office, Hariri also denied he had rejected an alleged proposal by Aoun to name five ministers, in addition to the Armenian Tashnag minister, in the 18-member Cabinet in exchange for controlling the Interior Ministry.
“Prime Minister Hariri, and unlike Hezbollah which always awaits his decision from Iran, is not waiting for the approval of any external party, neither Saudi Arabia nor anyone else, to form the government. Rather, Hariri is awaiting President Aoun’s approval of a Cabinet lineup of specialists, with the alterations that Prime Minister Hariri proposed publicly in his speech that was transmitted live on Feb.14, and not through press leaks, as seems to be the case today,” the statement said.
Hariri’s remarks reflected enduring differences with Aoun over the formation of a new Cabinet, as well as simmering tensions between the two leaders whose deepening rift has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than six months. The remarks came in response to an article published by Al-Akhbar newspaper Thursday claiming that Aoun told General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim that he would settle for nominating five ministers, in addition to the Tashnag party’s minister in a government of 18 ministers.
The paper added that Aoun insisted in return to obtain the Interior portfolio, and that MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, would refrain from granting the government a vote of confidence. It claimed that the surprise came when Hariri rejected Aoun's proposal, and explained it by saying that the premier-designate did not want to form a government before obtaining the approval of Saudi Arabia.
“Prime Minister Hariri did not receive any official comments from President Aoun in this regard, which means that those who leaked the information only aim to transfer the accusation of obstruction from President Aoun and MP Bassil to Prime Minister Hariri,” the statement issued by Hariri’s office said.
In a televised speech on Feb. 14 addressing the Lebanese on the 16th anniversary of the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed along with 21 others in a massive suicide truck bombing on Feb. 14, 2005, Hariri bluntly accused Aoun of blocking the formation of a new government by insisting on veto power.
The premier-designate said Aoun had rejected his proposed Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists to implement essential reforms in line with the French initiative to rescue Lebanon from multiple crises, because he wanted a share of six ministers, plus an Armenian Tashnag minister, or seven ministers, meaning a blocking third, or veto power. Hariri has vowed not to grant veto power to any party in the new government.
Hariri flew to the United Arab Emirates Wednesday after waiting for days for a contact from Aoun to meet to discuss with him his proposed Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists he presented to the president on Dec. 9. The new Cabinet would be tasked with implementing a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.
In Thursday’s statement, Hariri accused Hezbollah, a key ally of Aoun, of seeking to blame him for the Cabinet formation deadlock, now in its seventh month, while prolonging the government vacuum until Iran begins its negotiations with the administration of US President Joe Biden on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Referring to Hezbollah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem who said in a TV interview Wednesday that Saudi Arabia was blocking the government formation because it wanted the head of the government to stand against Hezbollah, the statement released by Hariri’s office said: “The conformity of the newspaper interpretation of the alleged rejection of Prime Minister Hariri, with the comments of Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem in his television interview yesterday, and its appearance in Al-Akhbar newspaper specifically today, reinforces the impression that Hezbollah is among the parties attempting to throw the responsibility on Prime Minister Hariri, and that it is maneuvering to prolong the government vacuum, while waiting for Iran to start its negotiations with the new American administration, holding Lebanon's stability as one of the cards for this negotiation,” the statement said.
Referring to the FPM, which has been accused by Hariri and the Future Movement of obstructing the government formation with its tough conditions, including a demand for veto power, the statement said: “If the Free Patriotic Movement’s decision is really to withhold confidence and oppose the government, then why did the head of the movement [Bassil] block the formation of the government for five months before announcing his position, contrary to what the president of the republic had committed to in order to justify the six portfolios out of 18 in his pursuit of the blocking third [veto power]?”
Later Thursday, Bassil struck back at Hariri’s statement, claiming that the premier-designate was not ready to form a government for “known external reasons.” He said the FPM would not participate in the next government or grant it a vote of confidence.
“Prime Minister Hariri has invented a new dilemma in the way of the government formation. He is doing what he used to do: holding up the [Cabinet] designation, putting it in his pocket and touring world capitals in order to exploit it without him taking into account the value of the lost and costly time,” said a statement issued by Bassil’s media office. The statement told the Lebanese that it would not be possible to recover the “kidnapped government” except through the “consent of external powers or an internal revolution.”
Responding to Bassil’s statement, Hariri’s media adviser Hussein Wajeh tweeted: “We thank Gebran Bassil for informing the Lebanese clearly in his statement today that the Free Patriotic Movement and its parliamentary bloc no longer represent the president and that the [FPM] is now in the ranks of opposition to [Aoun’s] mandate and the next government.”
Hariri reiterated his commitment to the criterion of forming an 18-member Cabinet made up of specialists who do not belong to political parties.
“Finally, Prime Minister Hariri reaffirms his commitment to the governmental standards from which he started upon the designation, whether in terms of numbers or with regard to the nonpartisan specialists’ criterion,” the statement said. It added that Hariri considers that the commitment to the French initiative “converges with the popular demands calling for a government capable of facing the socio-economic and financial repercussions, in addition to curbing the collapse of the Lebanese pound and clearing the way to serious reforms that can stop the current crisis.”
The crippling economic crisis reached a peak this week with the dramatic collapse of the Lebanese pound which hit a new record low, trading at 10,000 to the dollar on the black market. The collapsing pound sparked angry street protests throughout the country. Disgruntled residents Thursday continued to block roads in Beirut and around the country with burning tires for the third day in a row to protest against the deteriorating economic conditions.
Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy head, called for Aoun and Hariri to make concessions to help resolve the Cabinet crisis. He said if Aoun and Hariri agreed on the Cabinet formation, external factors would not be important.
“The agreement requires concessions and they are possible and they do not touch the substance. Every official in his position has his constitutional right. What is required is concessions that will neither upset any Cabinet setup, nor undermine the powers of any side,” Qassem said in an interview with the Al-Mayadeen satellite channel Wednesday night.
He said Hezbollah had proposed a solution based on mutual concessions with Hariri accepting to increase the number of the Cabinet members from 18 to 20 or 22 and Aoun dropping his demand for veto power.
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt signaled his support for the expansion of the proposed 18-member Cabinet and called for a compromise to resolve the crisis. “We are heading for internal chaos as a result of the socio-economic situation ... I am for a compromise [over the Cabinet crisis]. I am not sticking to a Cabinet of 18 members. Details no longer matter. The country is collapsing and there is a need to form a government,” Joumblatt said.