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Ray of hope over Cabinet formation

President Michel Sleiman, left, receives Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, center, and Hezbollah official Hajj Hussein Khalil in Baabda, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: A glimmer of hope emerged Tuesday over the formation of a new government following a fresh flurry of political activity aimed at breaking the nine-month stalemate, with a key adviser to President Michel Sleiman striking an upbeat note about the birth of an 8-8-8-Cabinet soon.

Former Minister Khalil Hrawi, a political adviser to Sleiman, who has been involved in the ongoing talks on the Cabinet crisis, had met separately with Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in a bid to remove hurdles impeding government formation.

“The atmosphere is positive toward forming an all-embracing 8-8-8 political government,” Hrawi told The Daily Star.

He said that the final outcome of the Cabinet formation efforts would emerge in the next four days “because all the parties insist on facilitating the Cabinet [formation] and participating in the national accord project.”

Hrawi described his meeting with Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, as “positive” in terms of commitment by the bloc and its March 14 allies to the proposed Cabinet formula.

Asked to comment on difficulties facing the Cabinet formation, particularly the distribution of ministerial portfolios among parliamentary blocs, Hrawi said that once agreement has been reached on the shape and nature of the government, other matters could be discussed.

But the March 14 coalition was waiting for details of the 8-8-8 Cabinet proposal before taking a final stance on it.

“We are waiting for details before announcing our stance on the 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup,” a senior March 14 official told The Daily Star Tuesday night. “The devil is in the details.”

Sleiman met earlier Tuesday with caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political adviser to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, at Baabda Palace in the latest attempt to facilitate the formation of a new Cabinet, stalled for nine months by conditions and counterconditions set forth by the rival factions over the shape of the government.

However, the president held out the possibility of forming a neutral government, an option that is staunchly opposed by the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition.

When the two aides asked Sleiman whether he opposed Hezbollah’s participation in a new Cabinet, the president’s answer was in the negative, saying he favored a government that included all the parties, a senior March 8 source told The Daily Star.

The two aides then proposed an 8-8-8 Cabinet formula in which the March 8 and March 14 factions would each have a decisive minister from the remaining eight ministerial portfolios allotted to centrists, the source said.

“The president was open to this proposal but said he could not wait indefinitely [for Salam] to come forward with such a Cabinet formula,” the source added.

Sleiman, according to the source, said he was ready to meet Berri to discuss any Cabinet formula.

Sleiman’s positive answer prompted Berri and Nasrallah’s envoys to seek a commitment from the president that he would not sign the decree of a neutral Cabinet – a March 8 term for a fait accompli government – the source said. “But the president refused to be committed on this demand,” the source added.U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale was also reported during his meetings with top Lebanese officials to have encouraged the formation of a Cabinet with Hezbollah’s participation, in a move apparently intended to avert the dire consequences of a fait accompli government on the country’s fragile security and stability.

A source close to the president said there was agreement between Sleiman and Berri and Nasrallah’s aides on an all-embracing political government that would not exclude any party.

However, the president did not promise the two envoys that if an all-embracing government could not be formed, a neutral Cabinet would not be formed instead, the source told The Daily Star.

Tuesday’s meeting at Baabda Palace came a day after Sleiman met with Salam, with whom he discussed the outcome of consultations aimed at forming a new Cabinet.

Sources familiar with the Cabinet formation process said that next week was expected to witness stepped up contacts aimed at making a breakthrough in the government crisis, with the Baabda Palace being the venue of such meetings.

On the Sleiman-Salam meeting, the sources said that the two men discussed the proposed Cabinet formulas, including the 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, but they did not agree to the “decisive minister” as suggested by Berri and Nasrallah’s aides.

The intensified activity on the Cabinet crisis comes against the backdrop of stern March 8 warnings of the grave consequences of a fait accompli government on the already deteriorating security situation in the country following a spate of car bombings that has jolted Beirut in the past few weeks.

Sleiman has signaled that he would approve the formation of a neutral Cabinet if there is no consensus between the rival factions over a national unity government.

“In case there isn’t a consensus on an all-embracing Cabinet as I had wanted over the past 10 months, do we stay without a government? Would a consensus on a government necessarily reflect national accord?” Sleiman asked in a speech Monday at a ceremony marking the renovation of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture in Beirut.

“How long can a president keep on rejecting Cabinet formulas suggested by the prime minister-designate who was nominated by 124 lawmakers and how long can the delay go on?” he asked.

He also rejected the argument that nonpolitical figures could not take part in a new government.

“If an all-embracing political government could not be formed, don’t the Lebanese, who do not belong to any political parties, have the right to participate in reviving and protecting the country?” Sleiman asked.

Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun rejected attempts to form a neutral Cabinet.

“Neutral [figures] and technocrats could serve as writers and advisers, not as politicians. Politicians are responsible [people] and have been elected by the Lebanese people. Therefore, we hope no one will try to sidestep them as long as they represent the people,” Aoun told a news conference after chairing a weekly meeting of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 08, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

A glimmer of hope emerged Tuesday over the formation of a new government following a fresh flurry of political activity aimed at breaking the nine-month stalemate, with a key adviser to President Michel Sleiman striking an upbeat note about the birth of an 8-8-8-Cabinet soon.

Sleiman met earlier Tuesday with caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political adviser to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, at Baabda Palace in the latest attempt to facilitate the formation of a new Cabinet, stalled for nine months by conditions and counterconditions set forth by the rival factions over the shape of the government.

When the two aides asked Sleiman whether he opposed Hezbollah's participation in a new Cabinet, the president's answer was in the negative, saying he favored a government that included all the parties, a senior March 8 source told The Daily Star.

Sleiman, according to the source, said he was ready to meet Berri to discuss any Cabinet formula.


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