Lebanon News

Berri’s bloc urges leaders to overcome govt formation hurdles

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a meeting for the Development and Liberation bloc at Ain al-Tineh residence in Beirut, March 15, 2021. (The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament, HO)

BEIRUT: The Amal Movement’s parliamentary bloc pleaded Monday with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to stop linking the formation of a new government to regional developments and begin immediately talks aimed at overcoming obstacles hindering the formation.

In a statement issued after a meeting of the 17-member parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc chaired by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence, the bloc stressed that the new government should be made up of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power to any party, in line with the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial turmoil since the 1975-90 Civil War.

The bloc’s position entirely conformed to the terms of Hariri, who since his designation last year to form a new government, has insisted on setting up an 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms outlined in the French initiative. He has vowed not to grant veto power to any party in the government.

The bloc also emphasized that the formation of a government of nonpartisan specialists was essential to preventing the collapse of the nation as it faces a string of serious economic, political and health problems, including an unprecedented financial downtown as reflected in the dramatic free fall of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar on the black market since last week. The pound hit a new record low Monday, trading for more LL13,000 against the dollar on the black market for the first time in its history.

The Amal bloc’s plea came four days after the international community, namely the United States, France and Russia, issued new appeals to Lebanon’s rival leaders to agree on the swift formation of a new government to implement essential reforms aimed at averting a total economic collapse and a much-feared social implosion.

However, the international appeals, laced with serious warnings that Lebanon was running out of time before a total collapse, as well as nationwide street protests against the deteriorating economic conditions, have so far failed to restore talks between Aoun and Hariri on the Cabinet crisis and nudge them into softening their conflicting positions on the shape and size of a new government to enact reforms stipulated in the French initiative. The two leaders remain at odds over the distribution of key ministerial seats, namely the Justice and Interior ministries, and the naming of Christian ministers.

The Amal bloc’s meeting was held against the backdrop of the pound’s free fall against the dollar with all its serious consequences for the country’s crumbling economy and the lives of the Lebanese, and an alarming surge in coronavirus infections and a high mortality rate despite a nationwide vaccination campaign launched on Feb. 14 to curb the pandemic.

“In the face of the terrible deterioration of the financial, economic and living conditions and the use of the livelihood of the Lebanese as a hostage in the hands of the merchants of crises and black markets ... and in order to avoid what is more serious and dangerous, the Development and Liberation bloc calls on those concerned with the government formation at various levels and positions to take an historic and responsible stance and act to stop the media exchange which leads only to one result and is upsetting the public order and a further loss of confidence in the state and its institutions by its citizens inside [the country] and in the Arab and international communities abroad,” the statement said.

In a clear reference to Aoun and Hariri, whose deepening rift has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than seven months, the statement said: “Those concerned with the [Cabinet] formation and signing its decrees must abandon any betting on time and on a regional change here or there, stop throwing the ball of responsibility from one court to another and begin immediately opening channels of dialogue and meeting together in order to eliminate all the obstacles that have blocked and are still blocking the formation of a mission government to save Lebanon from what is threatening its existence. A government of nonpartisan specialists according to the French initiative, a government whose members will not provoke anyone, a government that respects the [National] Pact requirements and equal power sharing [between Muslims and Christians] in which no party will have a blocking third [veto power].”

“The government is a mandatory pathway to prevent the collapse of the nation’s temple over the heads of everyone,” the bloc said.

As part of his ongoing consultations on the Cabinet formation crisis, Hariri met Monday at his Beirut Downtown residence with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt. The two leaders discussed latest political developments and the general situation in Lebanon, a terse statement released by Hariri’s media office said, without giving further details.

Hariri also met with French Ambassador to Lebanon, Anne Grillo, whose country has emerged as the main power broker since last year’s massive Beirut Port explosion. The two discussed latest political developments, a statement released by Hariri’s media office said.

The Hariri-Joumblatt meeting came amid reports that both Aoun and Hariri had rejected Berri’s latest initiative aimed at breaking the Cabinet deadlock.

The Amal bloc’s statement made no mention of Berri’s initiative apparently because it had not received a favorable response from Aoun and Hariri.

MP Ali Hasan Khalil, a top political aide to Berri, who met with Hariri last week reportedly to promote Berri’s proposal, blamed the two sides, the president and the premier-designate, for blocking the government formation. He also said that a demand by Aoun’s son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, for veto power still posed a major hurdle to the government formation.

Berri’s proposal reportedly called for the formation of a 20-member Cabinet in which no party would be granted veto power, with the Interior Ministry part of Hariri’s share and the Justice Ministry part of Aoun’s share. The name of the second Druze minister would be chosen in agreement between Joumblatt and his Druze rival, MP Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, an ally of the FPM.

Future Movement officials have said Hariri rejected a proposal, made by Bassil last month, for raising the proposed 18-member Cabinet to 20 or 22 ministers, to add two ministerial seats, one for the Druze sect and the other for the Melkite Greek Catholic sect.

The Cabinet deadlock comes amid an unprecedented economic meltdown that is hitting the Lebanese hard. The crashing pound has lost more than 85 percent its value since 2019, and subsequently driven half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below the poverty line.

The unchecked rise in the dollar exchange rate on the black market has unleashed a wave of nationwide street protests, including road closures in Beirut and other cities, by hundreds of angry residents demonstrating against the deteriorating economic conditions.

Disgruntled residents Monday blocked roads throughout Lebanon, including areas in Beirut, with burning tires to vent their anger against the free-falling pound. Main highways and roads from the north to the south of the country were closed off by angry demonstrators who can no longer cope with the worsening living conditions.

 

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