BEIRUT: Lebanon inched closer over the weekend toward a controversial deal that would extend Parliament’s term and resolve a long-simmering crisis over the salaries of public sector employees, a parliamentary source told The Daily Star.
If the talks between rival Parliament blocs over the comprehensive deal succeed, the legislature will convene soon to pass a tamer version of the wage hike that earlier this year led to paralyzing strikes by the public sector, the source said.
Parliament will also likely approve a decision by Education Minister Elias Bou Saab to issue passing certificates for Grade 9 and 12 students, whose exams were left in limbo by a prolonged teachers strike.
In turn, dealing with these two issues would form a counter-argument to Speaker Nabih Berri’s view that Parliament’s previous extension was useless, the source said. After extending Parliament’s term, a step that will almost definitely occur, according to the source, lawmakers will then move to resolve the extra-budgetary spending dispute.
But despite the progress in Parliament, sources said there had been no breakthrough in efforts to elect a president, especially after Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah confirmed Friday that the March 14 coalition should discuss the issue with MP Michel Aoun, March 8’s only presidential candidate so far.
Telecoms Minister Boutros Harb is set to launch a new initiative to tackle the presidency Monday.
Berri dismissed the notion that the election of a president required a Sunni-Shiite dialogue. “The problem is not with Muslims. Let the Christians agree [on a president] and there will be no problem. Muslims should not be held responsible for this issue,” he was quoted as saying by his visitors.
Berri said that 95 percent of Sunni MPs, 98 percent of Druze MPs and at least 50 percent of Shiite lawmakers were showing up every time he called for a Parliament session to elect a president.
“This means that 87 percent of Muslim MPs are attending these sessions and this percentage is way higher than that of Christian MPs [showing up],” Berri continued.
The sources said that there was no president to file a challenge against any law to extend Parliament’s term.
Opponents to the extension will most likely file a challenge at the Constitutional Council, Lebanon’s equivalent of a Supreme Court, as they did last year, the sources said, but they added that such a complaint is not expected to hinder the renewal of the parliamentary term.
Lebanese lawmakers had extended the mandate by 17 months in a 10-minute session in May 2013, despite wide condemnation by civil society and political groups. The excuse for the extension was the turmoil caused by the security situation, which is the same justification given by many MPs supporting another renewal.
The deal might come despite ongoing tension between the Future Movement and Hezbollah, especially after the former’s officials seemed to discard any possibility of direct dialogue anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Saudi Ambassador Ali Saeed Asiri reiterated Sunday the need for swift presidential elections in Lebanon and once again highlighted that his country would not enter into the names game.
About the possibility of talks being held between Hariri’s Future Movement and Hezbollah, Asiri said his country encouraged all sorts of contact between Lebanese political factions that would fall in Lebanon’s interest. He highlighted that dialogue could take place in Lebanon and abroad.
“Constructive dialogue among the Lebanese is much needed to discuss future stages and drive off looming dangers, and will benefit Lebanon in the long and short terms,” Asiri told Voice of Lebanon radio station.
Saudi Arabia has donated $1 billion to bolster the abilities of the Lebanese Army and security forces to combat terrorism, in the wake of five days of fighting between troops and extremist militants from Syria in the border town of Arsal. Riyadh entrusted former Prime Minister Saad Hariri with overseeing the grant to the military.
Separately, March 14 MPs condemned a weekend speech by Nasrallah, stressing that Hezbollah’s armed presence in Syria was not protecting Lebanon, but furthering its exposure to terrorist extremism.
Amin Wehbi, a Future Movement MP, denounced Nasrallah’s speech as “arrogant,” saying the party’s presence in Syria pushed the Lebanese to experience the Syrian people’s suffering. Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra said Hezbollah’s intervention served the regime in Syria rather than the Lebanese people and had turned the conflict there sectarian.
In his speech to mark the end of Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, Nasrallah dubbed ISIS an “existential threat” to Lebanon and the whole region, but highlighted that the resistance party was capable of thwarting new conspiracies devised for the country and the region.
Nasrallah defended his party’s intervention in the fight against ISIS, saying that combatting the terrorist threat did not require “national consensus.”
He said supporting the Army and supplying it with qualitative weapons was a primary and primordial requirement for countering the dangers.
“The [ISIS] project does not have a future in our region,” he said. “Yes, we have the ability to defend our country. Yes, we have the ability to defeat this project.”