BEIRUT: The Cabinet formed Thursday an electoral committee to prepare for next year’s parliamentary vote, as it sent a contentious electricity plan back to the Tenders Department. Details of the committee were not released.
“The Cabinet confirmed its previous decision to launch a public tenders bid [for additional power generating barges] ... based on the amended book of terms,” Information Minister Melhem Riachi said, during a news conference following the meeting. “There is also now the added option of securing the [required] land from the state, when the necessary technical conditions are in place based on the assessment of the energy minister.”
The Cabinet’s decision – made during a session held at the presidential palace in Baabda and headed by President Michel Aoun – takes the energy production plan of Free Patriotic Movement-affiliated Energy and Water Minister Cesar Abi Khalil back to square one.
The energy plan entails renting additional power generating barges, which would be moored off Lebanon’s coast. There are already two such barges – one near Zouk north of Beirut and one south of the capital in Jiyyeh.
Although the plan was endorsed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, it was almost immediately dismissed for failing to adhere to the legal requirements, given that the energy minister had circumvented the Tenders Department.
Abi Khalil’s initial plan was also criticized by members of the Cabinet for being overly expensive. Concerns at the time were raised by MP Walid Jumblatt, along with Lebanese Forces MPs, Speaker Nabih Berri and the Kataeb Party.
During a Cabinet session last month, ministers approved Abi Khalil’s plan on the condition that the book of terms governing the lease of the power generating boats was amended, with new stipulations added. The book then had to be returned to the Tenders Department for review.
The Cabinet’s decision Thursday confirms that the power barges’ lease should be arranged based on new requirements set out by the reviewed book of terms, which was agreed upon last month.
“There was a discussion ... over the decision to refer it to the Tenders Department to discuss the situation,” Riachi said, speaking to reporters after the session. “There was a response by the Tenders Department, which the energy minister was briefed on, and the decision was taken based on that.”
Riachi added that the electricity issue had not been on the Cabinet’s agenda, which included 34 items.The Cabinet also agreed to establish a committee to supervise upcoming parliamentary elections. The body will be composed of five members and will be headed by Judge Nadim Abed al-Malak.
While speaking to reporters, Riachi revealed that the members of the elections committee would be representatives of “civil society and unions.”
The elections are set to take place in spring 2018 – the first time Lebanese voters have been able to go to the polls since 2009.
Elections have been delayed twice due to security concerns, while Parliament extended its own mandate in June in a “technical extension,” in order to give the state time to prepare the polls based on a new voting system.
By-elections are supposed to take place before the main contest, in order to fill a vacant Maronite seat in Kesrouan and Tripoli’s Alawite and Greek Orthodox seats.
The law dictates that the by-elections ought to be held if there are more than six months left in Parliament’s term.
“The interior minister is the one that speaks about the by-elections and [is the one] that deals with it,” Riachi said when the subject was broached.
During a radio interview Thursday, Minister of State for Combatting Corruption Nicolas Tueni said that there is “no enthusiasm in Cabinet for holding the by-elections.”
Later in the day, Hariri met with Lebanese Forces Chief Samir Geagea at his home in Beirut where they discussed regional and local developments.
Despite a large number of pressing issues during the afternoon Cabinet session, both Aoun and Hariri made a point to stress the importance and impartiality of the recently ordered military investigation into the events that led to militants overrunning the northeastern border town of Arsal in 2014.
“The military investigation that has begun into the events of Arsal and what followed [the clashes] does not target anyone and does not touch upon political responsibilities, because that is the responsibility of the civil judiciary, which will handle the situation if the need so arises in light of the [investigation’s] results,” Aoun said during the session.
Aoun has seemingly been working to deflate tensions around the Arsal investigation. Last week, Hariri defended former Prime Minister Tammam Salam after he came under attack for his handling of the Arsal attack in 2014 as a result of the announcement of the investigation.
Critics claimed that Salam’s negligence resulted in the militants’ rapid overrunning of Arsal – prompting Hariri to meet with the former premier at his home in Beirut in a show of support.
During Thursday’s session, Hariri demanded that the investigation be kept separate from politics.
Speaking during the session, Hariri confirmed that the Cabinet had ordered the Army offensive against Daesh (ISIS), adding that he was “proud” of the military’s achievements.
“[Stop] the debating and the reactions,” he said. “The investigation will shed light on all points regarding what happened on Aug. 2, 2014.”
Daesh and what was at the time the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front overran the border town of Arsal and kidnapped over 30 Internal Security Forces, municipal police and Army servicemen, holding them hostage.
Several were released shortly after, and a further 16 soldiers and police held by Nusra were released in a prisoner swap in December 2015, but others died or were killed during captivity. The fate of the missing soldiers was not known until last month when the bodies of eight were recovered along with two other soldiers who were killed in the area.
The recovery of the bodies came as a result of the Army’s successful “Fajr al-Joroud” offensive against the militants along the Lebanese-Syrian border. The near 10-day operation resulted in the deaths of seven soldiers and dozens of militants.
Riachi also announced that Cabinet would meet for an extra session Sunday, set to take place at the Grand Serail and chaired by the prime minister.