BEIRUT: The Cabinet agreed Friday on the broad lines of a mechanism to fill the power vacuum caused by Parliament’s failure to elect a successor to former President Michel Sleiman and sought to avert a constitutional row that threatened government work.
Meeting for the first time since the end of Sleiman’s six-year term on May 25, the Cabinet passed a unity test amid fears that the presidential void, which has already brought Parliament legislation to paralysis, might also cripple government work.
Ministerial sources said the Cabinet agreed that Prime Minister Tammam Salam would send the agenda to the ministers 72 hours ahead of 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 a third or half of the Cabinet members plus one,” a ministerial source told The Daily Star.
Addressing the Cabinet session he chaired at the Grand Serail, Salam highlighted the importance of electing a president as soon as possible, saying that the vacancy in the presidency would upset the balance of the power-sharing pact between Muslims and Christians.
“Therefore, we must exercise our powers on behalf of the president with much care and prudence in order to preserve the country and its credibility and run the people’s affairs,” Salam said, according to Information Minister Ramzi Joreige.
Joreige, speaking to reporters at the end of the session, said the Cabinet agreed on “the broad lines of common rules that could be adopted to run the country’s affairs” during the presidential vacuum.
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.”
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi said consultations would be held among parliamentary blocs from now until the next Cabinet session Tuesday in an attempt to agree on a mechanism to implement the mandate granted by the Constitution to the Cabinet to exercise the president’s powers during the presidential vacuum.
The “positive atmosphere” that emerged during the Cabinet discussions encouraged reaching a mechanism on exercising the president’s powers, he said.
Rifi added that parliamentary blocs would seek advice from judicial bodies at the Justice Ministry to outline a clear mechanism acceptable to all the parties on exercising the president’s powers.
Rifi, a former chief of the Internal Security Forces, said he was more assured than before of the security situation in Lebanon.
Asked to comment on reports that a group of Syrian dissidents would intercept on June 3 buses carrying Syrians to vote at polling stations on the Syrian border, Rifi said: “There is no interest for anyone to cause security incidents in the country.”
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 mandate granted to the Cabinet that we did not even discuss any of the items on the agenda,” Bassil told The Daily Star after the session.
Several ministers said the discussion was positive but admitted that the issue was “very difficult” and required further talks.
Salam said the Cabinet should remain intact to provide a favorable atmosphere for the presidential vote.
“This is a Cabinet of national interest and its primary concern in the next stage is to concentrate on creating the appropriate atmosphere for holding the presidential election,” Salam said during the session.
Although Parliament has failed to choose a successor to Sleiman within the two-month constitutional deadline that ended on May 25, he said the presidential election should take place as soon as possible.
The session comes against the backdrop of a constitutional debate over the Cabinet agenda, with some Christian ministers demanding that they be informed beforehand about the agenda.
Under the Constitution, the prime minister prepares the Cabinet agenda and informs the president, and not the ministers, of it in advance.
Now with the country’s top Maronite post being vacant following Parliament’s failure to elect a successor to Sleiman, Christian ministers are demanding that they be informed of the agenda beforehand.
Apparently responding to Christian ministers who want to be briefed on the agenda in advance, Salam said the Cabinet would function in line with the Constitution, which vests full executive powers, including the president’s prerogatives, with the Cabinet until a new president is elected.
“Our concern is for the Cabinet to remain intact and coherent and to function in a positive atmosphere,” he added.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement urging Parliament to pick a successor to Sleiman as soon as possible without foreign interference.
The president of the council issued a statement Thursday expressing disappointment that the election to replace Sleiman didn’t take place on time. The statement called on Parliament to “uphold Lebanon’s longstanding democratic tradition” and make sure the election occurs “without external interference.”
It urged the government to continue the work of governing while Parliament works to elect a new president. “The Security Council reiterates its full support for the government of Lebanon to discharge its duties during this interim period in accordance with the Constitution, until the election of a new president,” the statement said.
For its part, Hezbollah reiterated its demand for the election of a president who supports the resistance. “We will not from now on accept a president who is an opponent of the resistance and who does not honor his pledge with it,” MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s bloc in Parliament, told a memorial ceremony in south Lebanon.