BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman and premier-designate Tammam Salam huddled for two hours Monday to deal with the thorny issue of ministerial portfolios and choose names of new ministers before announcing a Cabinet lineup widely expected this week.
The Sleiman-Salam meeting at Baabda Palace signaled that the birth of an all-embracing Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup was imminent despite Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun’s rejection of Salam’s eleventh-hour offer to reserve two key ministerial portfolios to the FPM in exchange for abandoning the Energy Ministry.
Salam, who held intensive talks with representatives of rival political parties to consult with them on their candidates to the new Cabinet, was still waiting for a final answer from Aoun to his offer, a source close to the premier-designate said.
Aoun is expected to formally reject Salam’s offer at a news conference Tuesday after chairing the weekly meeting of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc at his residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
A source close to Salam said a national unity Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup is not expected to be announced Tuesday, giving mediators mainly from Hezbollah more time to try to convince Aoun to budge on his rejection of the rotation of key ministerial portfolios.
A source close to the FPM told The Daily Star Sunday that Aoun had spurned Salam’s take-it-or-leave-it offer, which proposes that in addition to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Education or Public Works Ministry be allotted to the FPM in exchange for Aoun giving up the Energy portfolio.
Aoun’s insistence on retaining the Energy Ministry, currently held by his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, to his bloc, has been blamed for the delay in the Cabinet formation.
Caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, who has been involved in mediation efforts to facilitate the formation of a national unity government based on an 8-8-8 lineup, discussed the Cabinet crisis with Sleiman.
Abu Faour, who belongs to MP Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station that if mediation efforts reached a dead end, this would lead to the formation of an all-embracing political government, including ministers from the FPM, even without the blessing of Aoun.
The 8-8-8 proposal was a compromise reached last month by the PSP, the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the Future Movement in a bid to break the 10-month-old Cabinet stalemate.
The concept of rotating portfolios among sects and parties, upheld by Salam and backed by Sleiman, was part of that deal.
Salam held a series of meeting at his residence in Moseitbeh with Metn Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel, Roni Araiji, a representative of Marada leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, and a delegation from the Tashnag Party, apparently to ask them about their choices for the new Cabinet.Bassil, who met Salam Sunday, told Al-Manar TV that the FPM had not provided the premier-designate with the names of any of its candidates to the new Cabinet in light of the FPM’s objection to the concept of rotating ministerial portfolios.
However, according to sources close to the government formation process, Bassil is to be named the education minister in the proposed Cabinet lineup, while caretaker Culture Minister Gaby Layon from the FPM, is to be named the foreign minister.
March 14 MP Butros Harb is to be named the defense minister, Mohammad Dirbas or Marwan Zein is to be allotted the Interior Ministry, caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil becomes the new finance minister, Dany Qabbani, a lawyer close to Salam, will get the Energy portfolio, Abu Faour is to be allotted the Health Ministry, and Mohammad Mashnouq, a confidant to Salam, will get the Culture portfolio, the sources said.
If Salam goes ahead with forming an all-embracing political government based on an 8-8-8 lineup without the approval of Aoun, this risks the possibility of the FPM leader withdrawing his ministers from the Cabinet.
Ministers of his ally Hezbollah could also quit the government in a show of solidarity.
A Cabinet without representatives from the FPM and Hezbollah is unlikely to gain a vote of confidence from Parliament, thus rendering it legally and constitutionally incompetent to govern.
Likewise, with the Lebanese Forces’ decision not to join an all-embracing Cabinet with Hezbollah, an FPM walkout would cause a problem of Christian representation, even though the Kataeb Party said it would participate.
Aoun and the March 8 coalition have warned of dire consequences of forming a fait accompli government on the country’s security, which is increasingly threatened by the repercussions of the war in Syria.
The Kataeb Party renewed its call for a swift formation of an all-embracing government capable of meeting security challenges following a wave of car bombings and suicide attacks that struck Beirut’s southern suburbs and town of Hermel in the Bekaa Valley recently.
“The security exposure which threatens [Lebanon] with a dangerous Iraqization [Iraq-style sectarian violence] has become a major factor to forge ahead with an urgent political plan calling for an immediate formation of an all-embracing and capable government,” the party said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by former President Amine Gemayel.
Separately, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale met with LF leader Samir Geagea at the latter’s residence in Maarab, north of Beirut. The two discussed the political situation in Lebanon, developments in the Middle East, particularly the situation in Syria and the need for the Geneva II peace conference to find a quick solution to the 3-year-old crisis in Syria, according to a statement issued by Geagea’s media office.