BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has given the March 8 coalition a Sunday deadline to accept his proposed 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, or else he will form a fait accompli government, a senior political source said Thursday.
Salam also strongly rejected Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun’s demand that his son-in-law, caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, retain his post as energy minister in the new Cabinet, the source said.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, signaled that it would not join any Cabinet unless its key Christian ally, the FPM, was represented in it.
“Salam has told the March 8 coalition that he cannot wait indefinitely and that they have until Sunday to decide on their participation in the 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup,” the senior source told The Daily Star.
“If the March 8 approval of the 8-8-8 Cabinet proposal was not forthcoming by Sunday, Salam will either announce a Cabinet lineup, including FPM representatives but without obtaining Aoun’s consent beforehand, or go for a neutral government,” the source said.
At the root of the problem holding up the formation of a national unity Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup is Aoun’s opposition to the rotation of key ministerial portfolios, which is upheld by Salam and backed by President Michel Sleiman.
Aoun is adamant that Bassil retain the Energy Ministry, and that his bloc be given another sovereign ministerial portfolio, the source said.
Bassil met with Salam Monday to convey Aoun’s opposition to the rotation of key ministerial portfolios in the new Cabinet.
But Salam’s response was firm, saying he cannot reserve the energy portfolio for Bassil, the source said.
If Salam announces an 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup without Bassil retaining the energy portfolio, Aoun is expected to withdraw his ministers, the source said.
He added that this would cause a problem of Christian representation, since Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea has announced that his party would not join a Cabinet unless the government statement included the Baabda Declaration.
Aoun reportedly asked Hezbollah to join him in boycotting a Cabinet of which he did not approve, but he has not yet received an answer from the party.
However, Hezbollah signaled that it would support Aoun if he decided to stay out of the Cabinet.
“ Hezbollah and the FPM are [united] together and have the same stance on the Cabinet formation issue,” Hezbollah’s caretaker Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish told The Daily Star.
He denied reports that Hezbollah was mediating with Aoun in order to soften his opposition to the rotation of key ministerial portfolios.
Political sources said Hezbollah was ready to sacrifice one of its two ministers in the new Cabinet to the FPM in order to appease Aoun.
Efforts have intensified to resolve the row over the rotation of key ministerial portfolios in an all-embracing Cabinet in order to avert the option of a neutral government, sources at Baabda Palace said.
“But if the 8-8-8 Cabinet formula does not materialize, President Sleiman and the prime minister-designate will go for a neutral government,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.
The development came as two caretaker ministers said the formation of a national unity Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup was still held up by some obstacles that needed to be addressed. This was a clear reference to Aoun’s opposition to the rotation of key ministerial portfolios.
Aoun said Tuesday he would accept the rotation of ministerial portfolios only after new parliamentary elections, scheduled in November, were held.
Aoun is believed to be opposing the rotation of ministerial portfolios based on party and sect in the new Cabinet lineup because this would deprive him of two key portfolios: The Energy Ministry currently held by Bassil and the Telecommunications Ministry held by Nicolas Sehnaoui, who also belongs to the FPM.
MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, met Sleiman at Baabda Palace to discuss the ongoing efforts to form a new Cabinet.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV described the meeting as “positive,” saying that Raad and Sleiman discussed the FPM’s representation in the new Cabinet.
Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc renewed its call for “an all-embracing political government” and extended its hands to the March 14 coalition to cooperate to save Lebanon.“Our hands remain extended to our partners in the nation. We call on them to reconsider their choices so as not to let an opportunity for the Lebanese to reach an understanding slip away,” the bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting.
Caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, who belongs to Berri’s bloc, also said efforts were underway to overcome hurdles over the rotation of ministerial portfolios.
“A debate is raging over the issue of portfolios and names [of ministers]. There are some who hold the view calling for the adoption of the rotation [of ministerial portfolios] and those who oppose it. The premier-designate is trying to overcome these obstacles with side discussions,” Khalil said in a TV interview.
He called for forming an all-embracing political Cabinet to break the 10-month deadlock and pave the way for the election of a new president in May.