BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman Monday rejected attempts by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to convene the Cabinet, saying there was no reason for resigned ministers to meet and called instead for the formation of a government to oversee the election of a new head of state.
The row between Sleiman and Mikati over whether to convene the resigned Cabinet threatens to throw the country into further political malaise, at a time Lebanon is facing mounting security threats due to the 32-month-old war in neighboring Syria.
A deepening political crisis has left the country without a functioning government for more than eight months, with a paralyzed Parliament that has been unable to meet for a lack of quorum due to political differences between March 8 and March 14 parties.
“I don’t see a need to convene a Cabinet session unless the Army commander or the defense minister demanded something that required holding a session, such as the declaration of a state of emergency. This matter also requires a Parliament session,” Sleiman told a delegation from the Press Federation at Baabda Palace.
The president’s remarks come days after Mikati said he was considering convening Cabinet to address pressing state matters and security threats.
“I am very serious about reviving the Cabinet sessions. I think there is no legal or constitutional objection that prevents me from fully exercising my prerogatives,” Mikati was quoted as saying in As-Safir newspaper Monday.
Although MP Tammam Salam has failed in his attempts to form a new Cabinet since he was named prime minister-designate in April, Sleiman said there was a chance to form a government to oversee the presidential elections in May 2014. He dismissed the possibility of forming a “fait accompli” government, one decided in the absence of consultation with political parties.
Sleiman, whose six-year-term in office expires on May 25, 2014, said he was confident a new head of state would be elected on time despite fears that Parliament might not be able to meet to choose a new president. He also stressed the need for lawmakers to attend a Parliament session to elect a new president.March 8 ministerial sources said that Sleiman’s insistence that he did not see a need to convene the Cabinet had blocked the way to refloating the issue.
Citing articles in the Constitution, the sources said the prime minister did not need to agree with the president over whether to convene the Cabinet, and that the same thing applied to the president.
However, the sources said Mikati was unlikely to convene the Cabinet without Sleiman’s consent because Mikati is at odds with the March 8 parties, which accuse him of serving the March 14 coalition’s political objectives.
Despite the steps Mikati has taken toward the March 14 coalition, particularly the Future Movement, these parties have not forgiven him yet, the sources said. On the contrary, the parties are still launching verbal attacks on Mikati, the sources added, holding him responsible for what is happening in the country, particularly the fighting in the northern city of Tripoli.
The sources voiced fears that Sleiman’s rejection of the idea of convening the Cabinet could be a prelude to forming a fait accompli government in a bid to prevent Mikati from holding a session.
Sleiman’s rejection of a Cabinet session also stirred the ire of caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, who has been urging the government to meet to approve pending oil decrees.
“I was surprised by the president’s statement that he does not see a need to hold a Cabinet session. I am astonished with this stance which further freezes the country,” Bassil said after meeting in Ain al-Tineh with Speaker Nabih Berri, with whom he discussed the possibility of holding a session to address the oil issue.
Mikati has said the controversial oil wealth issue should be given priority in any potential Cabinet session.
The March 14 coalition staunchly opposes holding a Cabinet session to discuss the oil issue, saying the matter should only be handled by a new government. Sleiman has also come out against it, saying: “The Shura Council has issued a decision saying that this Cabinet cannot decide on the oil issue.”
Bassil, a member of MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, also accused Mikati of being subject to the whims of the March 14 group, particularly the Future Movement. “In principle, the decision [to convene a Cabinet session] is up to the March 14 group ... We always knew that Mikati, with all due respect, cares primarily about the interests of the Future Movement and fully fulfills its demands,” Bassil said.
“The government will not address the oil issue unless the March 14 allows it.”
For his part, Aoun said he expected a new president to be elected on time. He said he was not yet a candidate to the presidency, but he was ready run if he was nominated by lawmakers and political parties. If elected, Aoun vowed not to be a president for crisis management.
“I am not a candidate to the presidency unless lawmakers and parties want me to be so, then I will run,” Aoun said in an interview with MTV Monday night.
“I will not shirk from carrying out the [presidential] duty, but I will not be a president for crisis management,” he added.
Aoun, who staunchly opposes an extension of Sleiman’s mandate, said: “Our position is ‘no’ to extension or renewal [of Sleiman’s term] and ‘no’ to vacuum, which means the election of a president at the scheduled date.”