BEIRUT: A ministerial committee tasked with drafting the government’s policy statement gets down to business Wednesday, seeking to draw up a political blueprint acceptable to the feuding parties before the new Cabinet can seek a vote of confidence in Parliament.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s 24-member Cabinet of “national interest” held its first meeting under President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace Tuesday during which it announced the formation of a seven-member committee to draft the government’s policy statement.
Headed by Salam, the committee includes three March 8 ministers (Ali Hasan Khalil, Mohammad Fneish and Gebran Bassil), three March 14 ministers (Boutros Harb, Sejaan Azzi and Nouhad Machnouk), and a centrist minister (Wael Abu Faour).
The committee is slated to hold its first meeting under Salam at the Grand Serail at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
Unlike previous policy committees, it does not include the information minister, who usually speaks about the results of its meetings.
“The drafting of the policy statement should not be as difficult as some have been expecting,” Minister of State for Administrative Reform Nabil de Freij told the Voice of Lebanon radio station before the Cabinet’s meeting.
“It will be difficult to draft [the policy statement] in one session. It might require a few sessions, especially since there is a decision to facilitate the process,” added De Freij, a member of the parliamentary Future bloc.
March 14 Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, the retired Internal Security Forces chief, was upbeat after the Cabinet session that a breakthrough in the monthslong political deadlock was near.“If the atmosphere that we had in today’s session remains as it is for the next four months, this means the country will start finding its way out of [this] crisis,” Rifi told reporters after the session.
Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said the ministers intend to draft “a very short policy statement” that would not be more than one page, given the Cabinet’s short lifespan.
“We are planning to formulate a policy statement that is acceptable to all the parties represented in the Cabinet,” Azzi, who represents the Kataeb Party, told Al-Jadeed TV Tuesday night.
Culture Minister Raymond Areiji, who represents the Marada Movement, predicted that the drafting of the Cabinet’s policy statement would not be difficult “because everyone feels the great danger threatening Lebanon at the security and economic levels.”
Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, from MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, also expected the Cabinet’s policy statement to be short, saying it would not seek to eliminate anyone.
“The Cabinet atmosphere is positive. No one enters the Cabinet with a hawkish mentality. The entire Cabinet should be doves,” Bou Saab told reporters after attending the weekly meeting of Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
However, sources in the March 8 coalition said the drafting of the Cabinet’s policy statement would not be as smooth as some are saying.
“The ministerial committee needs to explore a creative way to iron out wrinkles over the controversial issues of the Baabda Declaration and the tripartite formula of ‘the Army, the people and the resistance,’” a senior March 8 source told The Daily Star.
The March 14 coalition has insisted the policy statement include the Baabda Declaration, while Hezbollah and its March 8 allies want to uphold the tripartite formula of “the Army, the people and the resistance” that has been adopted by previous governments.
As a way out of the impasse, political sources told The Daily Star that the ministerial committee was expected to recommend the adoption of policy statements of previous governments as well as the decisions of the National Dialogue Committee, including the Baabda Declaration.
Once the policy statement has been drafted, the Cabinet can go to Parliament to seek a vote of confidence.
Sleiman, who presided over the Cabinet session, lauded the new lineup.
“President Sleiman said this is one of the best [possible] Cabinets with its makeup, because it really reflects the nature of the Lebanese system and it includes everybody ... and [because] it was ‘made in Lebanon,’” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said, reading a statement after the meeting.
The president also stressed the need for the new government to reassert its commitment to the Baabda Declaration, which calls for distancing Lebanon from regional and international conflicts, particularly the war in Syria.
Sleiman, according to Joreige, said that while the government’s lifespan was short, there was a lot of work that needs to be done, with security a top priority, in addition to holding the presidential and parliamentary elections.
The Cabinet’s mandate does not exceed the presidential election, which should take place before May 25.
International congratulations for the new government continued to pour in Tuesday, with Saudi Arabia lauding the achievement and reiterating its commitment to Lebanon.
“The formation of the Cabinet is a Lebanese achievement resulting from a united political will to come together,” Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri said in a statement. He also expressed hope this positive atmosphere would last for the sake of Lebanon and its people, and called on Lebanese officials to “seize this opportunity and take serious measures to distance Lebanon from conflicts and violence.”
Salam met separately at the Grand Serail with European Union Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst and Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin, both of whom expressed support for his Cabinet.
“We hope that the formation of the national interest government will enhance stability and security in Lebanon, and we support the priorities ... declared by Salam regarding the upcoming presidential election and other issues,” Zasypkin said.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael Halqi congratulated Salam on the Cabinet formation, in a rare diplomatic gesture toward Lebanon.
In a letter to Salam, Halqi expressed hope for the development of “sisterly ties between the two countries and peoples” and for the two states to “achieve more security and stability.”