BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman said he would back a neutral Cabinet if efforts to form an all-embracing government hit a dead end, as Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement continued to rebuff efforts by Hezbollah to convince it to give up the Energy Ministry portfolio.
“A neutral government will be formed if efforts to have an 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup fail,” Sleiman told Al-Mustaqbal newspaper in an interview to be published Monday.
Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, stood firm on the FPM’s opposition to the rotation of ministerial portfolios among sects, saying the Energy Ministry was a strategic asset for Christians and ensured their role in the country.
“It is strategic for Lebanon and Christians because it restores a role on the international stage that was taken from the Christians 25 years ago. The ministry also involves a balanced development [policy] that was absent from Christian [areas] for 25 years,” Bassil said during a news conference.
“The principle of rotating ministerial portfolios is a sound policy if it is adopted by consensus and consultations ... [and] at the beginning of a new Parliament or presidential term,” he added.
Lebanon last year launched its first oil and gas licensing round, with 46 international energy companies prequalifying to bid for offshore exploration contracts. Bassil said last October that there might be as much as 95.9 trillion cubic feet of gas and 865 million barrels of oil in less than 45 percent of the nation’s waters.
Bassil said the rotation policy targeted the FPM’s achievements at the Energy Ministry and said any change in his post would reflect negatively on the entire oil sector.
He also argued that Sleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam were depriving Christians of their rights: “I cannot believe that the son of [former Prime Minister] Saeb Salam and the president squander the rights of Christians as such.”
He added any compromise should not be at the expense of Christians.
Aoun says he was excluded from deliberations that have led to a deal between the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party on forming an all-embracing 8-8-8 Cabinet and rotating key ministerial portfolios among sects.
Sources close to Salam said that while they believed Hezbollah was doing its best to convince Aoun to accept rotating ministerial portfolios, he could not wait long before forming his Cabinet.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said if Hezbollah’s efforts were not successful, then Salam would form an all-embracing government in which the FPM would be handed ministerial portfolios other than the Energy and Telecommunications ministries, which it currently holds.Political sources, however, wondered whether Hezbollah would also withdraw its ministers from the new government if FPM members resigned in protest at the party being stripped of the Energy Ministry.
Caretaker Social Affairs Minister and Progressive Socialist Party official Wael Abu Faour, who is mediating efforts to form such a Cabinet, said the opportunity to have a national unity government would not last forever.
“President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam are working on having an all-embracing government and there is still a chance for this to happen, but it is not long or open-ended,” Abu Faour told a local TV station.
He said there were no international or regional obstacles preventing the formation of the government.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale traveled to Saudi Arabia Sunday for talks with officials there on how to support Lebanon.
A source familiar with efforts to form the government said that during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Hale would meet Saudi officials following up on the situation in Lebanon. The outcome of his talks would determine the result of Cabinet formation efforts, the source added.
A statement by the U.S. Embassy said Hale’s discussions with Saudi officials would “focus on enhanced international support for Lebanon.”
The source said Hale had met former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, in Paris a few days earlier. He then visited Aoun, PSP leader Walid Jumblatt and Salam.
According to the source, Hale urged the three officials to strengthen Lebanon’s immunity by forming an inclusive consensus government, pointing out that this was a dangerous phase for the country that required painful concessions from all groups.
Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri said his country supported any agreement among Lebanese parties that would preserve Lebanon by forming a government as soon as possible. “From the first moment, the kingdom has supported any consensus among the Lebanese to form a Lebanese government that wins unanimous backing, and believes that neither it, nor Iran nor any other country, have anything to do with the Cabinet formation process,” Asiri told a Lebanese radio station.
“This is a Lebanese affair that first and foremost has to do with the Lebanese and thus responsibility falls on them only.”
The envoy said Saudi Arabia encouraged dialogue and unity in Lebanon.
Asiri added that he had been outside Lebanon for several months due to the deteriorating security situation in the country.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said Saturday that current circumstances in the country required the formation of a neutral government.
“The country cannot be left without a government, so long as the Cabinet is a real and harmonious one. These conditions can only be attained at the moment through a neutral government,” he said during a meeting with an LF delegation.
Michel Mouawad, head of the Independence Movement, said that independent March 14 officials were still considering whether to join a government in which Hezbollah was represented.
Addressing a news conference, Mouawad said: “What we can get before forming the government we cannot get after. There should be an agreement on the policy statement [prior to the Cabinet formation] and on opposing arms outside state authority.”
The March 8 coalition, the PSP and the Future Movement have so far agreed to postpone the thorny issue of the Cabinet’s policy statement. – Additional reporting by Antoine Ghattas Saab