BEIRUT: Lebanon’s rival political leaders appeared Tuesday to have neared a consensus on supporting Samir Khatib for prime minister, raising hopes for breaking the monthlong Cabinet deadlock that ensued as a result of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation under pressure of nationwide anti-government street protests.
The development came after a flurry of intensified activity aiming to clear the way for binding parliamentary consultations on naming a new premier and the quick formation of a new government.
In a further sign of a breakthrough in the Cabinet formation efforts, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil offered Tuesday to stay out of the next government if this would help facilitate the successful implementation of economic reforms and fighting corruption in ministries and state institutions, two major demands of the protesters. Bassil, also the caretaker foreign minister, had been blamed in the past for delaying the government formation with his tough demands for inclusion.
All contacts and talks held by political rivals in the past week have centered on Khatib, a prominent contractor, who has emerged as a strong candidate for the premiership after Hariri resigned Oct. 29 , bringing his 30-member Cabinet down with him.
“I support the candidacy of engineer Samir Khatib for the premiership. But there are still some details to finalize. Inshallah, hope for the best,” Hariri told reporters after a meeting with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt at his Downtown Beirut residence Tuesday night to discuss ways to resolve the Cabinet crisis. Hariri said everyone was seeking to overcome “this difficult stage,” adding that he would not set conditions for the formation of a new government.
In reply to a question, Hariri said his parliamentary Future bloc would not participate in the new government with “political figures, but with technocrats.” Since his resignation, Hariri has insisted on the formation of a government of “specialists” or “technocrats,” a key demand of the protesters, saying otherwise he preferred to bow out.
But President Michel Aoun, the FPM, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah have all been pushing for a techno-political government.
Hariri met later at his residence with caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a key aide to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political adviser to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, to discuss the reported consensus on Khatib.
“The meeting ended on a positive note,” NBN broadcaster, which is affiliated with Berri’s Amal Movement, reported, without giving further details.
Khatib is an executive vice president of engineering company Khatib & Alami, according to the firm’s website. He was reported Tuesday to have met with Bassil at the Foreign Ministry after meeting earlier in the day with Aoun at Baabda Palace as part of his contacts with all sides to gain their support for the premiership.
A source familiar with the Cabinet formation process had told The Daily Star that Khatib was seeking to promote a 24-member techno-political government that would also include representatives of the protest movement.
A group of demonstrators gathered outside Khatib’s residence in Beirut’s Talet al-Khayyat area Tuesday night. It was not immediately clear how protesters would react were Khatib put forward for the premiership, after their negative reaction thwarted attempts by other Sunni candidates.
Speaking to visitors at Baabda Palace, Aoun said: “The upcoming days will bring positive developments.”
More than a month after Hariri’s resignation, Aoun has been criticized, mainly by Future Movement officials, for failing to set a date for binding parliamentary consultations with lawmakers to designate a new prime minister.
A political source said if the main political parties reached a deal on supporting Khatib, Aoun might set a date for parliamentary consultations later this week. Joumblatt did not speak to reporters after meeting with Hariri.
But after meeting with Berri earlier in the day, the PSP leader took an indirect jab at Aoun for delaying the constitutionally required consultations. “If I am not wrong, everything that is happening today is a violation of the Constitution. Consultations should be held during which Samir Khatib would be nominated,” Joumblatt told reporters after meeting with Berri at the latter’s Ain al-Tineh residence, when asked whether he supported Khatib’s nomination. “We might nominate him [Khatib] or not. But there are rules to be followed,” he said. Joumblatt also said that the PSP would not directly participate in the new government, but would name competent people for the seats reserved for the Druze sect.
Speaking at a news conference devoted to announcing the FPM’s position on the Cabinet issue, Bassil said his party was ready to relinquish representation in the next government if doing so would facilitate the successful implementation of reforms and fighting corruption. He also struck an upbeat note on the ongoing talks to break the Cabinet impasse. “We are hoping that the [Cabinet formation] efforts are close to a happy ending,” he said.
Rejecting opponents’ accusations that the FPM was blocking the Cabinet formation, Bassil said: “We are not obstructing, but rather facilitating [the Cabinet formation]. We are not setting conditions.”
“Given a choice between participation in the government or its success, we will choose success,” Bassil said. He added this would not be an attempt to shirk responsibility; rather it would be a show of “political self-sacrifice.”
“We are committed to fighting corruption rather than to a seat in the government. Give us a law on disclosing [officials] accounts, properties and electricity [plans] and take any seat in the government,” Bassil said.
He added that the FPM was ready to accept being excluded “for the sake of a government [formed in line with the National Charter on equal Muslim-Christian representation] that will preserve the country.”
Lebanon is under growing international pressure to enact structural economic reforms recommended at the CEDRE conference in Paris last year.
The reforms are deemed essential to unlock over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged by international donors to bolster the ailing economy and finance key infrastructure projects.
Bassil said the next government would have to come together and agree on new financial policies given that previous policies had led Lebanon to its economic and financial crisis. Some have criticized Bassil and Aoun for holding up the Cabinet formation process, including over the representation of Bassil himself, to which Hariri has reportedly been opposed.
Bassil has been one of the most reviled figures among street protesters during the national uprising that began on Oct. 17. For many days, thousands across the country chanted vulgar slogans cursing the FPM leader’s mother. He has since kept an uncharacteristically low profile.