The opposition March 14 parties’ termination of their boycott of Cabinet-related meetings in Parliament has revived the possibility of extending the terms of both Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, director-general of the Internal Security Forces, political sources said Monday.
The draft law sent by Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn to the prime minister’s office to extend Kahwagi’s term remains with Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
The idea of extending Kahwagi’s term was based on the assumption that if parliamentary polls are held in June as scheduled and the process of forming a new government proves as difficult as the last time, Kahwagi might reach the age of retirement on Sept. 25 without a fully functioning executive authority in place.
Also, Kahwagi’s deputy, the Army chief of staff, who takes charge of the Army Command while Kahwagi is away or when he retires, is also headed for retirement on May 11.
Similarly, the remaining four members of the country’s Military Council will retire successively between April 7 and May 15. The chief of Army Intelligence will also retire in April, as will Rifi.
Based on this information, there are fears that the Lebanese Army will be left without a commander, without a chief of staff to replace him and without a Military Council.
This generated the idea of extending Kahwagi’s term, which prompted the defense minister to send a draft law in this respect to Mikati; the Cabinet would then refer it to Parliament to vote on making the Army commander’s retirement age 62 instead of 60.
At the time, leading political parties, which were sounded out on their opinions about the extension of Kahwagi’s term, welcomed it as a good idea. However, the possibility of extending the Army chief’s term opened the door to a similar extension of the term of Rifi, on the grounds that sectarian balance must be maintained. Rifi is eligible for retirement in April.
While negotiations were being held between Cabinet members and the March 14 opposition to arrive at a formula that would secure the extension of Kahwagi and Rifi’s terms together by raising the retirement age, the Oct. 19 assassination of Maj. Gen. Wissam Hasan, the head of the ISF’s Information Branch, stalled the issue after the opposition decided to bring down the Mikati government at any cost and boycotted all Cabinet-related meetings in Parliament.
Nevertheless, the return of March 14 parties to Parliament and their participation in the joint parliamentary committees’ meetings could revive the discussions on keeping both Kahwagi and Rifi in their posts for another two years.
Sources following up on this issue said that by ending their boycott of Parliament and attending the joint committees’ meetings with the presence of ministers, and subsequently dropping their demand for toppling the Cabinet, the March 14 parties have signaled their readiness to attend a Parliament session designed to approve the extension of Kahwagi and Rifi’s terms.
Although Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and his ally, Hezbollah, oppose the extension of Rifi’s term, Speaker Nabih Berri’s endorsement of this extension would secure the needed majority for the draft law to be sent by the Cabinet to Parliament in the first session to be held by the general assembly before mid-March, or during the legislature’s regular session in the middle of the same month, the sources said.