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Sleiman says Mikati right to question energy proposal
President Michel Sleiman arrives to chair a Cabinet session at Baabda Palace on Monday, Feb. 27 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
President Michel Sleiman arrives to chair a Cabinet session at Baabda Palace on Monday, Feb. 27 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
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BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman voiced his support for the prime minister’s decision to re-evaluate plans to improve power supply in the country and said that, should the Cabinet fail to arrive at an agreement Wednesdaty, a further session would likely be scheduled.

“[Prime Minister Najib Mikati] is right because he found that the costs are high and so he sounded the alarm bell,” Sleiman told An-Nahar newspaper in an interview published Wednesday.

Mikati and Energy Minister Gibran Bassil, a member of MP Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, are at loggerheads over plans to increase electricity supply in the country. The two stood firm Tuesday on their conflicting proposals, raising fears of a confrontation and possibly a vote on the electricity issue during Wednesday’s Cabinet session.

Sleiman said that, should the government fail to reach agreement on the matter during Wednesday’s session at Baabda Palace, a further Cabinet session would likely be scheduled after his return from an Arab League summit in Baghdad.

“First and foremost, I want transparency; we will see what the information indicates and discuss this in a democratic fashion and if it is enough we will agree and if not we will head to another session that will probably take place two days after my return from the Arab [League] summit. Then we will be able to continue discussions because it is important that we come out with a result,” Sleiman said.

The president also said it was unlikely that the prime minister had a premeditated desire for such a delay.

Should a vote take place, the majority is on the Aoun camp’s side and Mikati’s proposal would be defeated. Aoun’s 10 ministers are backed by ministers from Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, who has publicly supported Bassil’s plan for leasing electricity-generating barges.

In his interview with An-Nahar, Sleiman stressed that he does not take sides, nor is he prevaricating. He also briefly addressed the issue of who should be appointed to the top post in the Higher Judicial Council, which has been vacant for over a year following the retirement of Judge Ghaleb Ghanem, saying that Shakib Qortbawi's suggestion on the matter would not be discussed in the Cabinet's Wednesday session.

Sources close to Mikati told The Daily Star that matters were heading toward “a compromise” in the dispute between the prime minister and the energy minister over a mechanism to boost electricity supply.

But sources in Aoun’s bloc warned against postponing Cabinet action on the electricity crisis during Wednesday’s session. The two proposals can’t be forged into a compromise – either one or both of the plans must be adopted, the sources told The Daily Star.

They predicted that a hardening of political stances would result if the issue is postponed.

According to the sources from Aoun's bloc, meetings were to be held Tuesday night among ministers from Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah and Amal to hammer out a joint strategy for facing the possibility of the Cabinet rejecting Bassil’s proposal or postponing discussion of the electricity problem. As an escalatory tactic, the sources did not rule out the possibility of Aoun’s ministers withdrawing from the Cabinet session if Bassil’s electricity proposal is not discussed.

Mikati has expressed reservations about Bassil’s proposal for leasing two power-generating barges, which have a combined capacity of close to 300 MW daily, arguing that the cost of renting these barges is too high. The claim has been denied by Bassil’s camp.

Mikati is expected to present a report to Wednesday’s Cabinet session containing an offer from a foreign company to build a power-generating plant within a year at a cost less than that of leasing the electricity-generating ships proposed by Bassil’s plan.

In a news conference Tuesday, Bassil said Mikati’s proposal lacked “seriousness and professionalism” and contained “fatal mistakes.”

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, for his part, said he would not participate in the row.

“I will not intervene and I will wait a week or two and the government will then hear the appropriate response,” Berri told An-Nahar. “The [Amal] Movement's ministers will adopt the stance that best serves the Lebanese and their interests and guards public money.”

 
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