BEIRUT: After months of deadlock ministers Thursday filled key vacancies in the country’s Military Council, in the first regular session of the Cabinet to have all of the political blocs in attendance since August. In Paris, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reached out to French President Francois Hollande to find common ground on Lebanon’s direction, at a time when the presidential vacuum has extended into its 20th month.
“Lebanon is a friend of Iran and France. We hope that it will end its crisis, and we will cooperate in its interest,” Rouhani said at a joint news conference with Hollande. The official visit was the first by an Iranian president in nearly two decades, following the lifting of international sanctions against the country on account of its nuclear program.
For his part, Hollande said efforts should be made to end the country’s presidential vacuum.
Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah is due to speak Friday evening about the vacuum after keeping mum on the matter for over two months. The two leading candidates for president are Sleiman Frangieh of the Marada Movement and Gen. Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement. Neither has indicated conceding the race for now.
Acting Information Minister and Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said after the Cabinet session that ministers addressed 241 of the 379 items on the agenda, to approve grants, ambassadorial appointments, and the state’s participation in various conferences.
The two matters dominating the agenda, though, were the security appointments and Lebanon’s position on the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Disagreements over military appointments have paralyzed the government’s work since the summer, with the FPM, supported by Hezbollah, having insisted that the Cabinet fill vacancies to the Military Council and appoint a new Army chief before turning to any other matter.
The major parties Wednesday agreed to consider Defense Minister Samir Moqbel’s council nominees, paving the way for the FPM and Hezbollah to lift their Cabinet boycott. Three of the posts on the council have been vacant for two years, depriving the body of its mandatory five-member quorum. Ministers appointed Brig. Gen. Samir al-Haj to the council’s Orthodox seat, Brig. Gen. George Shraim to its Catholic seat, and Brig. Mohsen Fneish to its Shiite seat.
“We agreed on the Military Council at the beginning. This is positive, and it opens an opportunity for the Cabinet to meet [regularly],” Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb told The Daily Star. The minister added that the discussion about Lebanon’s position on Saudi-Iranian tensions was “objective.”
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in early January abstained from voting on an Arab League resolution shortly after tensions between the two regional powers escalated that, among other things, classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The rest of the league approved the resolution, though Syria’s membership has been suspended since 2011.
This prompted the Future Movement, which is aligned with Saudi Arabia, to lash out at Bassil, and prompted the Cabinet to discuss Lebanon’s affiliation with Arabism and the Arab League.
“There were two perspectives,” Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, a Future member, told The Daily Star. “Hezbollah’s perspective, and our perspective – mine, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk’s and Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s. In the last five minutes, we decided to continue this discussion Tuesday.”
The Cabinet is scheduled to meet again Tuesday morning.
But ministers avoided other difficult topics, chief among them judicial reforms and former Minister Michel Samaha’s explosives case.
“My case today is about the bombs, which were in Samaha’s possession, and my options are open,” Rifi told reporters before the meeting, as he held pictures of the bombs seized during Samaha’s arrest in Aug. 2012.
Samaha was released on a $100,000 bail earlier this month, despite his terrorism conviction last year.
On Jan. 18, Rifi submitted a request to the Cabinet to transfer Samaha’s retrial from the Military Tribunal to the Judicial Council, and he proposed a draft law to establish special, terrorism courts. Yet Rifi emerged from the meeting tight-lipped. “It was not on the agenda today,” he said.
Nor did the Cabinet address a draft law to provide Civil Defense volunteers with full-time, salaried employment. “It was mentioned, but we did not reach that point on the agenda,” Chehayeb said.
Civil Defense volunteers responded by cutting off streets in Downtown Beirut, causing minor traffic congestion late in the evening. They have observed a sit-in in Martyr’s Square since September last year.
Interior Minister Machnouk said before the meeting the agenda also included discussions on the upcoming municipal elections. He said there was no reason for the polls, scheduled to take place this Spring, not to happen on time. However, there was no indication that Cabinet discussed the matter.
Chehayeb added that Cabinet did not discuss the waste crisis, saying that the preparations for the export scheme were moving on schedule. – Additional reporting by Louay Faour