Lebanon News

Salam calls Cabinet session, disputes persist

Prime Minister Tammam Salam, right, receives Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri in Beirut, Saturday, July 19, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: Intensified contacts have failed so far to resolve disputes over the Lebanese University decree despite Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s scheduling of a Cabinet session for Thursday. Meanwhile, Speaker Nabih Berri was quoted by his visitors as saying Sunday that the election of a president would facilitate parliamentary elections and help institutions function properly. “If the election of a speaker is difficult to a certain extent amid presidential vacuum, then nominating a prime minister is way more difficult,” Berri said.

“That’s why a president should be elected out of eagerness on having institutions function properly and on meeting all constitutional deadlines because the election of a president is ‘open sesame.’”

Berri was responding to Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Friday speech, in which he said that it was not possible to hold parliamentary elections and elect a speaker before electing a president. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for November.

Berri said that the president has to consult the speaker and MPs before nominating a prime minister. “Thus, a prime minster cannot be nominated amid presidential void, but Parliament can meet and elect its speaker,” Berri said.

In his speech, Hariri proposed a road map to safeguard Lebanon. He renewed his call on Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria, arguing that it would be difficult to protect Lebanon from regional conflicts and establish a political, economic and security “barrier” that would shield the country from the fallout of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war.

Hariri stressed that breaking the 2-month-old presidential stalemate was the key to holding parliamentary polls scheduled in November, while strongly rejecting any attempts to renew Parliament’s mandate.

Berri said he backed Hariri’s support for security services in their crackdown on terrorism which he expressed during his speech. The speaker said he was also adamant on the need to elect a president before holding parliamentary elections.

Speaking to The Daily Star, parliamentary sources from Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc said it was unlikely the thorny LU issue would be resolved before Thursday.

In its last session earlier this month, the government failed to approve a decree that would make contract-based LU professors full-timers and appoint deans at the institution’s council.

Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun is insistent that the dean of the Faculty of Medicine be a Maronite, while MP Walid Jumblatt is adamant that Pierre Yared, a Greek Catholic who is the current acting dean, stays in office. Meanwhile, the Kataeb Party is demanding that one of the government commissioners on the university’s board be from their party, a condition Education Minister Elias Bou Saab has rejected.

The sources said that negotiations will continue this week between the relevant ministers, especially those from Jumblatt’s bloc, the FPM and the Kataeb party, under the auspices of Salam, in hopes of coming to a final solution before Thursday.

Salam was reportedly convinced of calling for a session by certain ministers, who saw that failing to hold a meeting was not in the interest of the country, sources said.

As for the faceoff over funding the salaries of over 200,000 public sector workers, including civilians and military personnel, only an agreement between Berri and the Future Movement can let these employees receive their salaries in time for the Eid al-Fitr holiday next week.

Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, from Berri’s Amal Movement, has insisted that the funds cannot be released without a law from Parliament, while Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who heads the Future bloc, claims this is not necessary and that the current government can pay salaries as previous governments have done without resorting to the legislature.

Ministerial sources said that popular anger triggered by the failure to pay salaries could threaten the stability of the government, which is already in a tight spot given that the government has not been able to get any serious work done since the presidential vacuum began May 25.

Berri insisted Sunday on his stance. “Employees will only receive their salaries based on law and away from any violation.” However, he said that dialogue between the Amal Movement and the Future Movement would continue, revealing that a meeting between both groups would take place Monday.

Hariri’s speech received mixed reactions over the weekend, with Hezbollah suggesting that the group was not in need of political consensus to “defend Lebanon.”

Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah said Hezbollah was not waiting for a defense strategy or governmental approval to fight the so-called Takfiri groups in Syria that threaten Lebanon. “Because when we are attacked and invaded and killed, none of those strategies will bear fruit as is quite obvious across the entire region,” Fadlallah told a gathering in south Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s ally, the FPM, also criticized Hariri’s proposal, saying it did not offer a real breakthrough. But the Lebanese Forces and the spokesman of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, on the other hand, considered it a way to break the impasse over the presidency.

Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra praised Hariri’s initiative as a “road map we should build on.” Zahra told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that the plan was the “only means to save Constitutional life in Lebanon and end the presidential void.”

Bkirki’s spokesperson Walid Ghayyad said the Maronite patriarch endorsed Hariri’s initiative and all the initiatives aimed at breaking the impasse. Ghayyad added that Rai believed that initiatives must be coupled with “action and concessions” to safeguard the country.

Separately, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai Sunday said he wished the term of former President Michel Sleiman was extended until a new president is elected. Addressing Sleiman during a Mass to commemorate the anniversary of Mar Charbel, Rai said he wished the former president would have stayed in office until a new head of state was elected.

“But what to do; those who support a void rejected the suggestion,” Rai said in a veiled reference to the FPM and Hezbollah. “They opted for shutting down the presidential palace after President Sleiman kept it open.”

In other news, Salam discussed developments on the local and regional scenes with Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Asiri, who visited him at the Grand Serail Saturday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 21, 2014, on page 3.




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