BEIRUT: The way is clear for forming a new Cabinet this week after hurdles have been overcome, President Michel Sleiman said Monday, raising hopes for the birth of a government.
Speaker Nabih Berri echoed a similar optimistic tone, saying he expected a new Cabinet to be formed this week as contacts over an all-embracing government persisted.
“The Cabinet will be formed at the end of this week after all obstacles have been eliminated. We are putting the final touches,” Sleiman told reporters after meeting Arab and foreign ambassadors during the annual reception at Baabda Palace on the occasion of the New Year.
He also said all political parties had become convinced of the principle of the rotation of ministerial portfolios among parties and sects – a contentious issue between Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun.
However, Sleiman said if no Cabinet was formed by March 25, when the two-month constitutional deadline for the election of a new president begins, all options, including a neutral Cabinet, would be on the table.
The president earlier met with caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, with whom he discussed Cabinet formation efforts. He described the meeting with Bassil as “positive.”
Bassil also met with Salam at the latter’s residence in Moseitbeh to discuss the Cabinet formation bid.
FPM sources said Bassil’s talks with Sleiman and Salam centered on the number and kind of ministerial portfolios, namely the Energy and Telecommunications ministries demanded by Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc.
Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, has instructions from the FPM leader to listen to offers made by Sleiman and Salam, while stressing there should be no compromise on obtaining a sovereign ministry along with public service ministries, the sources said.
The consultations to settle the row between Salam and Aoun over the rotation of key ministerial portfolios have not reached any final understanding, the sources added.
As a way out of the stalemate, parliamentary and political sources familiar with the Cabinet formation efforts said there was serious talk about expanding the proposed 8-8-8 lineup to 30 ministers, whereby the three major sects, Maronites, Sunnis and Shiites, would each get six ministers and three for the Druze sect.
Aoun was reported to oppose the rotation of ministerial portfolios based on party and sect because that would deprive him of two key portfolios: the Energy Ministry currently held by Bassil and the Telecommunications Ministry held by Nicolas Sehnaoui, who belongs to the FPM.
As part of efforts to facilitate Cabinet formation, Salam met with caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a political aide to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, an adviser to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.
In an interview with Elnashra news website Monday, Berri said agreement had been reached on the 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup along with a comprehensive rotation of ministerial portfolios. He said agreement was also reached to discuss the policy statement after Cabinet’s formation.
The 10-month-old Cabinet deadlock saw a major breakthrough last week when former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said he was ready to share power with Hezbollah in a coalition government to help stabilize Lebanon as it faces mounting threats to its security from the war in Syria. Hariri’s remarks came against the backdrop of a political deal over an all-embracing Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup, which has won the support of Berri, Hariri’s Future Movement, the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt.
Jumblatt lauded Hariri’s stance, saying the Future Movement leader has proved he is “a statesman capable of giving priority to the country’s supreme national interest, stability and civil peace above any other consideration.”
Aoun also praised Hariri’s stance. “It is a courageous stance that facilitates the Cabinet formation,” Aoun said.
However, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who opposes an all-embracing government that includes Hezbollah, said he disagreed with Hariri.
“I don’t agree with Hariri on the substance of his statement, even though I share his opinion that steps should be taken forward to ease the situation,” Geagea said in an interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya channel.