BEIRUT: Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil said Thursday the Free Patriotic Movement was adamant on retaining the Energy and Telecommunications ministries, clearly rejecting the concept of rotating ministerial portfolios proposed by Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam as a way out of the 10-month-old Cabinet stalemate.
Bassil’s stance is bound to dampen hopes for the formation of a national unity Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup, given Salam’s insistence on the rotation of key portfolios among sects and political parties, a plan backed by President Michel Sleiman.
“We want a sovereign portfolio and the Energy and Telecommunications ministries, in addition to a fourth portfolio,” Bassil said in an interview with LBCI television.
The Finance, Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs ministries are deemed sovereign portfolios in any Cabinet.
Bassil dubbed the Energy Ministry a “guarantee” for the Christians in the same way, he said, the Interior Ministry was viewed as a guarantee for the Sunnis and the Finance Ministry as a guarantee for the Shiites.
Bassil rejected accusations that FPM leader MP Michel Aoun’s opposition to the rotation of ministerial portfolios was to blame for impeding the formation of a new Cabinet.
“The Cabinet formation has been stalled because someone has provoked a problem,” he said, in a clear reference to Salam’s insistence on rotating ministerial portfolios among sects and parties in an 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup.
Bassil said Aoun had told Salam shortly after he was named prime minister-designate in April that the FPM wanted to retain the Energy and Telecommunications ministries.
Asked if Salam or mediators had offered the FPM substitute portfolios for the Energy and Telecommunications ministries, Bassil said: “No one has offered us anything.” He also denied reports that the Public Works Ministry was offered to the FPM in exchange for the Energy Ministry.
He said the FPM had not authorized Hezbollah to negotiate on its behalf with Salam over the formation of a government.
Earlier Thursday, political sources said this week’s deadline to break the Cabinet impasse had been extended for a few days to give mediators additional time to resolve the row over the rotation of key ministerial portfolios.
“Contacts are still ongoing in various directions in a bid to untangle the knot over Gen. Michel Aoun’s rejection of a ministerial rotation. These contacts concentrate mainly on forming an all-embracing Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star.
“If these efforts fail to produce positive results, then all options will be on the table,” the source said.
Sleiman and Salam, who met at Baabda Palace Wednesday, refrained from taking any decisions on the fate of a new Cabinet as was widely expected after mediation attempts to agree on a national unity government have reached a dead end.
They apparently opted to give mediators more time to address Aoun’s objection to rotating ministerial portfolios in the new Cabinet. Sleiman and Salam have said that if attempts to form a national unity Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup fail, this would leave them with two options: a neutral, nonpartisan government, or an all-embracing political government without the blessing of Aoun.
Bassil reiterated the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition’s warning that the formation of a fait accompli government would have dire consequences on the country’s security, which is increasingly threatened by the repercussions of the nearly 3-year-old war in Syria.
Aoun insisted Tuesday that Bassil, his son-in-law, retain the Energy Ministry and called on Salam to step aside after failing in 10 months to form a new Cabinet.
MP Ahmad Fatfat from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc said Sleiman and Salam might eventually form a political fait accompli government if efforts to form a national unity Cabinet fail.
Fatfat, who discussed the Cabinet crisis with Salam Tuesday, said the premier-designate was convinced that a neutral government would be effective but “political pressure on him made the possibility of such a government far-fetched.”
“Therefore, President Sleiman and Salam might form a so-called political fait accompli government. Then each side can bear responsibility for withdrawing or not withdrawing from it,” Fatfat told reporters after meeting Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea at the latter’s residence in Maarab, north of Beirut.
The concept of rotating ministerial portfolios among sects and parties was part of an agreement reached earlier this month between the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, MP Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party and the Future Movement. The agreement also calls for forming a national unity government based on an 8-8-8 lineup.