Lebanon News

Lebanon nears new Cabinet after six MPs’ issue solved

Speaker Nabih Berri heads the weekly meeting with lawmakers in Beirut, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Ibrahim, HO)

BEIRUT: Lebanon edged closer to forming a new government Wednesday after the elimination of a major hurdle involving the representation of six Hezbollah-backed Sunni MPs, Hezbollah and political sources said.

Also, a political aide to Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said the premier was working very hard to iron out the last remaining hitches over the redistribution of some ministerial portfolios before announcing a Cabinet lineup this week.

“Cautious optimism is still reigning. This week is decisive for the government formation. Prime Minister Hariri is striving to overcome the remaining obstacles before presenting a Cabinet lineup,” former Future MP Ammar Houri, the newly appointed political adviser to Hariri, told The Daily Star Wednesday night.

Hariri, who has held talks with leaders of major political parties as part of his intensified flurry of activity aimed at breaking the Cabinet formation deadlock, now in its ninth month, Tuesday said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a new government would be formed soon. He said a final decision on the deadlock would be made later this week.

Hariri’s talks focused on a swap of some ministerial portfolios, as well as resolving the problem of the six Sunni MPs’ representation, which has been an obstacle to Cabinet formation since October.

“The problem of representing the Consultative Gathering in the new government has been resolved,” a Hezbollah official told The Daily Star, referring to the group of six Sunni MPs not affiliated with Hariri’s Future Movement.

The official, who declined to be identified, said under the agreement reached during a meeting Tuesday night between Hariri and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, President Michel Aoun would have to choose one of the group’s two nominated candidates as their representative in the new government: Othman Majzoub, a political adviser to Tripoli MP Faisal Karami, one of the six MPs, or Hasan Mrad, son of MP Abdel-Rahim Mrad, also one of the six.“The chosen representative will exclusively represent the Consultative Gathering and be part of the president’s Cabinet share. But he will not be part of the [Free Patriotic Movement’s parliamentary] Strong Lebanon bloc, or attend its meetings,” the Hezbollah official said, referring to the bloc headed by Bassil, the FPM leader.

Asked when a national unity government would be announced, the official said: “Either Friday or Saturday.”

His remarks came a day after Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, held a lengthy meeting with the six Sunni lawmakers at Mrad’s residence in a move apparently aimed at prodding them to accept the Hariri-Bassil accord to resolve the issue.

“A written agreement was reached during this meeting [between Khalil and the six MPs] under which President Aoun will choose one of three candidates named by the Consultative Gathering to represent them in the government: Othman Mazjoub, Hasan Mrad and Taha Naji,” a political source familiar with the Cabinet formation process told The Daily Star Wednesday night.

The source added that Hasan Mrad is the favorite to be selected by Aoun.

The Hezbollah official said Hariri’s efforts were now focused on resolving the last sticking point over a swap of some ministerial portfolios.

Speaker Nabih Berri, who has offered to give up the Environment Ministry allotted to his bloc to the FPM per Bassil’s request, is demanding either the Industry or Culture Ministry in return.

But the Progressive Socialist Party, headed by former MP Walid Joumblatt, has refused to cede the Industry and Education ministries assigned to the party’s Democratic Gathering bloc, the official said.

Similarly, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea was reported to have refused during his meeting with Hariri in Paris last week to cede the Culture Ministry, one of four ministries allocated to the LF’s parliamentary Strong Republic bloc.

Media reports said Berri was ready to accept the Tourism Ministry, which is part of the Tashnag Party bloc’s share, in exchange for giving up the Environment Ministry to the FPM. There was no immediate comment from the Tashnag Party lawmakers on whether they were ready to give up the Tourism Ministry in return for the Information Ministry which Berri had rejected.

Earlier in the day, despite rising optimism that a breakthrough in the Cabinet formation crisis was imminent, Berri said efforts were underway to resolve two main issues.

“Ongoing contacts over the Cabinet formation are focused on two points: how to represent the Consultative Gathering and some fine-tuning to the distribution of some ministerial portfolios,” Berri was quoted as saying during his weekly meeting with lawmakers at his Ain al-Tineh residence.

“The principle of representing the Consultative Gathering has been agreed upon. The problem is where will the Consultative Gathering minister stand and in whose share he will be?” MP Ali Bazzi from the speaker’s bloc quoted Berri as saying.

Berri said that Hariri had done his job by contacting the main political parties to break the deadlock. “Speaker Berri also did his duty in the past two days with the aim of facilitating the Cabinet formation because the situation of the country and people can no longer endure the wasting of opportunities,” Bazzi said.

MP Mrad told Al-Jadeed TV that one point of contention within the group was whether their representative would attend meetings of the FPM’s bloc. Mrad nevertheless said he was optimistic that a government would be formed “within 48 hours at the latest.”

A political source told The Daily Star that “Hezbollah has taken it upon themselves to end the deadlock and told the six Sunni MPs to move forward with [deciding on] a candidate.”

The source said, “It appears that things are complete and a new government will be announced.”

But Joumblatt appeared to be pessimistic about an imminent Cabinet breakthrough, saying Hariri was unlikely to form a government in the next few days.

“Unless he pulls a rabbit out of his hat, Mr. Hariri has little chance of forming a government soon,” the PSP leader said in remarks published by the UAE’s English daily, the National. “I was recently asked to make concessions and I politely refused.”

Joumblatt said he would not give up the Education and Industry ministries. “On a personal level, I have no problem with Mr. Hariri. On a political level, there are fundamental differences between us, particularly regarding privatization: The government is paying a hefty price to private companies to work on the Tripoli refinery and the Deir Ammar power station” Joumblatt said.

Hariri, who was designated on May 24 to form a national unity government in which all the main political parties are represented, has apparently been left with three main options for moving forward: Forming a new government, reactivating the caretaker Cabinet or stepping aside.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2019, on page 1.

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