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Rival camps’ deal sets stage for 8-8-8 Cabinet
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, left, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, left, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)
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BEIRUT: Barring last-minute hitches, a new government based on an 8-8-8 lineup will probably be announced this week after rival leaders clinched a deal to break the nine-month Cabinet deadlock, a senior March 8 source said Sunday.

“A Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 formula will be announced this week. All the parties are in agreement on the framework of this all-embracing government,” the source told The Daily Star.

The source said the thorny issue of distributing ministerial portfolios among parliamentary blocs and naming ministers was expected to begin Monday after major hurdles over a March 8 demand for veto power and the rotation of key ministerial portfolios have been overcome.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora cited major progress in the Cabinet formation process, but said the Future Movement and its March 14 allies have not yet decided on the new Cabinet proposal.

Separately, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri met in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with whom he discussed the situation in Lebanon and developments in the region, his office said in a statement without giving further details.

Hariri is likely to meet Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun in Rome to discuss the Cabinet formation bid.

Optimism about breaking the nine-month Cabinet stalemate capped several days of intensified political activity aimed at narrowing differences between the March 8 and March 14 parties over the shape of the government.

Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt discussed the government formation efforts Sunday with Speaker Nabih Berri.

Jumblatt, who was accompanied by caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, did not speak to reporters after the meeting at Berri’s residence in Ain al-Tineh that was also attended by caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to the speaker.

Khalil said Jumblatt’s meeting with Berri was designed to confirm “some understanding over the shape of the Cabinet and the need for everyone to participate it.”

Speaking in a TV interview, Khalil said Siniora had asked for a meeting with Berri. “The meeting will take place in the next 24 hours. It is an opportunity that can help speed up the Cabinet formation,” he said. He added that Hariri was serious in his support for an all-embracing government and was seriously contributing to reach that goal.

Berri and Jumblatt have spearheaded the political drive to promote an 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, in which the March 8 and March 14 parties would each get eight ministers, with “decisive ministers” allotted for each side among the remaining eight ministerial portfolios set for centrists. This would effectively grant the rival camps veto power in the government.

Siniora said the Future Movement and its March 14 allies have not yet taken a final stance on the proposed 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, but he appeared to be cautiously optimistic about the ongoing contacts to resolve the government crisis.

“The Cabinet formation attempts are moving on the right track,” Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, told The Daily Star.

“We have not yet taken a final stance on the 8-8-8 [Cabinet] proposal because we are still waiting for answers to the five questions,” he said. “We are in the middle of consultations with all the parties, including the president and the prime minister-designate.”

“Had we received answers to the questions, we would have announced our position on the Cabinet proposal,” Siniora added.

The Future Movement has demanded answers to five questions centering mainly on the government’s policy statement, a March 8 demand for veto power and the rotation of ministerial portfolios – key contentious issues that could torpedo the ongoing Cabinet formation negotiations.

Asked whether he expected a new government to be formed this week, Siniora said: “I don’t know. Maybe you should ask the prime minister-designate.”Siniora, who met President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace Saturday to discuss the Cabinet proposal, described his meeting as “good.”

The Cabinet formation efforts have been stymied for nine months by conflicting conditions set out by the rival factions over its shape and role.

In response to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, the March 14 coalition has demanded a neutral, nonpartisan government that would effectively exclude the party.

Hezbollah, backed by its March 8 allies and Jumblatt, have warned of the dire consequences of a fait accompli government – their term for a neutral Cabinet – on the country’s fragile security and stability. They insisted on an all-embracing government that would represent all the political parties.

Meanwhile, former March 14 MP Misbah Ahdab slammed the coalition for making “concessions” and accepting to join Hezbollah in the proposed 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup despite its military intervention in Syria.

He accused the March 14 coalition of backtracking on conditions they had imposed for joining a government with Hezbollah. “Haven’t you vowed to boycott a government that includes Hezbollah unless the party withdraws from Syria?” Ahdab asked at a news conference at his home in the northern city of Tripoli.

“Didn’t you say that you will not be intimidated and that you will not settle for less than the removal of Hezbollah’s arms from Lebanon?” he said.

Sleiman Saturday urged rival political parties to make mutual concessions over the formation of national unity Cabinet. “I hope the political rivals will succeed in light of the recent positive atmosphere to reach a consensus over forming a national unity Cabinet that can address citizens’ daily and social needs and confront the difficulties of the next stage,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 13, 2014, on page 1.
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Story Summary
Barring last-minute hitches, a new government based on an 8-8-8 lineup will probably be announced this week after rival leaders clinched a deal to break the nine-month Cabinet deadlock, a senior March 8 source said Sunday.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora cited major progress in the Cabinet formation process, but said the Future Movement and its March 14 allies have not yet decided on the new Cabinet proposal.

Optimism about breaking the nine-month Cabinet stalemate capped several days of intensified political activity aimed at narrowing differences between the March 8 and March 14 parties over the shape of the government.

Berri and Jumblatt have spearheaded the political drive to promote an 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, in which the March 8 and March 14 parties would each get eight ministers, with "decisive ministers" allotted for each side among the remaining eight ministerial portfolios set for centrists.

Hezbollah, backed by its March 8 allies and Jumblatt, have warned of the dire consequences of a fait accompli government – their term for a neutral Cabinet – on the country's fragile security and stability. They insisted on an all-embracing government that would represent all the political parties.
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