BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman has agreed with Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to seek the formation of a 14-member neutral Cabinet before Jan. 25, political sources said Monday, a move that is likely to throw the country into further chaos given stern March 8 warnings against such a government.
Sleiman also voiced hope that a new Cabinet would be formed early next year to meet crucial challenges, at the forefront of which is the presidential election scheduled in May.
Separately, Sleiman telephoned Saudi King Abdullah to thank him for the $3 billion grant to buy arms for the Lebanese Army from France, according to a statement released by his office. He said the grant was part of Saudi Arabia’s support for Lebanon over decades of relations between the two countries.
Sleiman also received a phone call from French President Francois Hollande, who renewed his country’s support for Lebanon and said that France was ready to meet the Lebanese Army’s military needs through coordination between the defense ministries and the army commands in both countries.
Sources at Baabda Palace said there were no political strings attached to the Saudi grant. “The Saudi grant did not carry any political terms. The money [$3 billion] will not be deposited in Lebanon’s banks because Saudi Arabia will purchase arms for the Lebanese Army from France.”
Nizar Abdel-Qader, a retired general, told MTV that the Army needed defense systems, including an air defense system, and ammunitions.
The planned neutral Cabinet, excluding representatives of rival factions, would run the country’s security, economic, administrative and diplomatic affairs pending an agreement among the March 8 and March 14 parties on a consensual political government, the sources said.
The sources set Jan. 25 as a deadline for the Cabinet formation because once Sleiman has signed the decree for the lineup, it needs at least one month to draft its policy statement, thus reaching March 25, which is the beginning of the two-month constitutional period to elect a new president.
Sleiman, according to the sources, had previously told all political parties of the need to agree on a Cabinet lineup regardless of the number of its members and formulas being floated in the media, or else he would be compelled to form a nonpolitical government to meet the upcoming challenges, including demands by America, France and Italy for a swift Cabinet formation.
The stepped-up efforts to form a Cabinet come a few days after a car bomb explosion killed former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah, a political adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, along with seven others in Downtown Beirut.
Shatah’s assassination on Dec. 27 was the latest in a series of car bombings that struck various Lebanese areas, signaling that Lebanon was rapidly being dragged into the Syrian conflict.
Following Sleiman’s announcement Sunday on the Saudi $3 billion grant, March 8 parties stepped up the rhetoric against the presidency, accusing Sleiman of achieving Riyadh’s goals in Lebanon, according to a March 8 source.The source said that MP Walid Jumblatt would support the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance in boycotting any March 14-controlled Cabinet formed by Sleiman and Salam. Jumblatt has conveyed this stance to Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
Cabinet formation attempts came to a standstill Monday as Sleiman left with his family to Budapest for the New Year holiday.
Hezbollah and its March 8 allies have warned against forming a neutral or fait accompli government and demanded instead a Cabinet based on a 9-9-6 lineup which would give veto power to the March 8 and March 14 camps.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem warned Sleiman last week against forming a fait accompli Cabinet, saying that such a government would plunge the country into chaos.
Salam, supported by the March 14 coalition, has kept mum on the 9-9-6 Cabinet proposal. But the Future Movement and its March 14 allies have rejected outright the 9-9-6 Cabinet formula. Instead, they have demanded the formation of a neutral, nonpartisan government to oversee the presidential vote.
Sleiman, concerned that Lebanon might slip into a presidential vacuum when his six-year-term in office expires on May 25, 2014, has promised to form a new Cabinet before he leaves office.
He expressed his hope that a new Cabinet would be formed at the beginning of the new year to face the upcoming challenges, namely the presidential election, according to a statement released by his office.
“The beginning of the new year will witness serious discussions on the formation of a new Cabinet because the situation has become intolerable,” Sleiman told a delegation from the Economic Committees at Baabda Palace. He hoped that a new Cabinet would eventually be formed, gain Parliament’s confidence and oversee the presidential election.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who discussed the Cabinet formation efforts with Sleiman, praised the Saudi grant to buy arms for the Lebanese Army.
The Saudi king’s “generous initiative toward Lebanon and the Lebanese Army has represented an unexpected, great, important and landmark event that will have far-reaching positive effects on Lebanon’s protection and its capability to confront security challenges and dangers and Israeli threats, especially at this time when Lebanon is going through difficult and delicate circumstances,” Siniora said.
He added that the Saudi grant was complementary to Riyadh’s support for Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty, state institutions and its social and economic stability. “The Saudi aid given to Lebanon over the past years has constituted a fundamental factor of Lebanon’s steadfastness and stability in the face of storms it has faced and is still facing since the mid-’70s.”
March 14 MP Marwan Hamadeh also hailed the Saudi grant as a bid to end Hezbollah’s arms dominance. “The Baabda Declaration and now the Saudi-French-Lebanese agreement will put an end to Hezbollah’s arms domination both in Lebanon and Syria,” he said, adding that Iran’s Hassan Rouhani might join “this renewed international role.”