BEIRUT: Lebanon's Cabinet passed a difficult test Friday, with ministers attending the first executive session after the end of former President Michel Sleiman's term to agree on a mechanism that would govern the work of the government in light of a presidential vacuum.
Ministerial sources said the Cabinet agreed that Prime Minister Tammam Salam would send the government’s agenda 72 hours before the scheduled session but further discussion was needed to finalize the mechanism.
“They will try to agree on how many signatures are needed to issue a decree, for example, whether the signatures of the 24 ministers were required or merely third of the Cabinet,” a ministerial source told The Daily Star.
Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan said the atmosphere was “positive,” adding that the ministers were seeking a consensus on all issues “because it is in everyone’s interest to do so.”
But Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil was pessimistic, saying the Cabinet had not yet reached a consensus on any of the vital issues.
“The proof that there is no consensus on either the issue of signatures or the power vested in the Cabinet is that we did not even discuss any of the items on the agenda,” Bassil told The Daily Star after the end of the session.
Several ministers said the discussion was positive but admitted that the issue was “very difficult” and required further discussion.
“The Constitution is not very specific and we need to establish grounds for that,” Minister of State Nabil De Freij said.
There had been rampant speculation that some Christian ministers would refuse to attend Cabinet sessions while there is a vacuum in the presidency, the top Christian post in Lebanon.
The Cabinet's next session will be Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Salam, who chaired the session at the Grand Serail, said the Cabinet should remain intact to provide a positive atmosphere to elect a new president, which he said must take place as soon as possible.
“This is a Cabinet of national interest and its primary concern is to create the appropriate atmosphere to elect a new president. Even if it did not happen within the Constitutional time frame, the election should take place as soon as possible,” Salam said at the beginning of the session.
He also said that the Cabinet would function in line with the Constitution, which grants the executive branch full powers, including those of the presidency, until a new president is elected.
“Our concern is for the Cabinet to remain intact and coherent [and function] in a positive atmosphere,” he added.
Although there were 25 items on the agenda, Bassil said that he, along with Free Patriotic Movement ministers, were attending the session to "talk politics rather than discuss the agenda."
"We already agreed to that with Prime Minister Salam ... our attendance was conditional: We agree on the political issues before discussing the agenda," Bassil told reporters at the Serail before he stepped into the session.
Telecoms Minister Butros Harb, a March 14 Christian lawmaker, said he would make proposals to govern the work of the Cabinet in the absence of a president.
Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour criticized what he said were "invented reasons" to obstruct the government's work.
"We should not invent reasons to disrupt the Cabinet and Parliament and those who are keen on the presidency should head to Parliament to elect a new president," Abu Faour told reporters at the Serail.
Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi from the Kataeb Party met with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea at Maarab before attending the session.
The two affirmed that the Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces should have a unified stance with regards to the mechanism governing the Cabinet's work in light of the presidential vacuum.