Lebanon News

Cabinet starts to fray ahead of first session since vacuum

From left, Ministers Mouhad Machnouk, Mohammad Fneish and Michel Pharaon attend a Cabinet session in Baabda, Friday, May 9, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Cabinet faces a unity test Friday when it meets for the first time without a president amid fears that the presidential vacuum, which has already paralyzed Parliament legislation, might also affect government work.

“It will be a smooth Cabinet session. We have not been informed by any ministers that they will not attend,” a source close to Prime Minister Tammam Salam told The Daily Star Thursday.

However, sources in MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement told The Daily Star that the FPM’s two ministers, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, were mulling the possibility of boycotting the Cabinet session after Salam had refused to inform them of its agenda as stipulated in the Constitution.

With 25 items on its agenda, the Cabinet meeting will be chaired by Salam at the Grand Serail at 4 p.m. Friday. “The ministers will discuss normal and administrative matters,” the source said, ruling out any new public appointments to be approved during Friday’s session.

However, the source acknowledged that the presidential vacuum following Parliament’s failure to pick a successor to former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year term ended on May 25, would cast its shadow over the Cabinet session.

“Since the end of [former] President Sleiman’s mandate, there have been voices and even ministers demanding that they be informed beforehand about the Cabinet agenda,” the source said. “Some constitutional points relating to the [Cabinet] decrees and who signs them were also brought up.”

Citing constitutional articles governing the Cabinet’s work, the source said: “The Constitution is clear. Article 64 states that the prime minister prepares the agenda and informs the president of it in advance.”

Asked if the debate over constitutional aspects could impede the Cabinet’s work, the source said: “The ministers will discuss Friday some constitutional issues that were raised here and there after the presidency seat became vacant. Some of these issues are related to prepare the Cabinet agenda and who signs decrees.” “I don’t think paralyzing the Cabinet’s work will be in anyone’s interest,” he added.

The presidential void has increased Christian concerns about the delicate power-sharing formula between Muslims and Christians.

Parliament legislation was the first victim of the vacuum in the country’s top Christian post. Lawmakers from major Christian parties, the Kataeb Party, the Lebanese Forces and Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, boycotted a Parliament session Tuesday intended to discuss the public sector’s salary scale bill in protest at the failure to elect a new president.

Christian parties and lawmakers have pledged to boycott Parliament sessions while the presidency seat was vacant, arguing that the legislature’s priority should be given to elect a president.

The presidential void has raised fears that the Cabinet’s work might also be affected if Christian ministers decided to boycott its sessions as a means of pressure to elect a president.

Under the Constitution, the Cabinet assumes full executive powers, including those of the outgoing president, until a new president is elected.

Earlier Thursday, a Kataeb member of the Cabinet said Christian ministers will attend Friday’s session despite the presidential void.

“We do not have a problem with attending Cabinet’s sessions, this does not go against the Constitution,” Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi told The Daily Star. “We just believe we should now cooperate together as ministers to decide what issues to address in the government’s future meetings.”

Azzi added that Cabinet should also avoid making exceptional decisions and limit its activity to running the country’s and citizens’ affairs. “I am not saying we should act as a caretaker Cabinet, it is not the case of course. I am just saying we should avoid major decisions so that we do not give the impression that the country is doing OK in the absence of a president.”

“That’s just out of respect to the National Pact,” Azzi said, in reference to the unwritten 1943 agreement that laid the basis of Lebanon as a multiconfessional state and governs the political dynamics of the country to this day.

Former Minister Wadih Khazen, head of the General Maronite Council, said after meeting Aoun, that Aoun’s bloc, the Kataeb Party and the LF plan to cripple the Cabinet’s work and eventually boycott its sessions as a means of pressure to accelerate the election of a president.

“The interests of the Lebanese are gradually being disrupted because the influential Christian parties in Parliament have decided against legislation except for electing a president,” Khazen told The Daily Star. “The parties also intend to gradually obstruct the Cabinet’s work, and eventually boycott its sessions if a new president is not elected.”

Separately, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the importance of a speedy election of a new president, saying his country would continue cooperation with Lebanese officials and constitutional institutions.

Kerry phoned Sleiman to congratulate him on his efforts to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability and preserve national unity despite neighboring turmoil and violence, according to a statement from Sleiman’s office.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 30, 2014, on page 1.




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