BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, facing major hurdles that for months have prevented the formation of a new government to deliver reforms and avert the country’s total economic collapse, is expected to hold a crucial meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri this week to decide on his next move, including the possibility of stepping down, a political source said Sunday.
“When he returns to Beirut, Hariri is set to hold crucial talks with Speaker Berri to decide on whether to forge ahead with his attempts to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to enact reforms or step down, especially after the speaker’s Cabinet initiative was rejected by President Michel Aoun and MP Gebran Bassil,” the source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.
The source said that Hariri’s mission has been further complicated by Bassil’s repeated declaration that the Free Patriotic Movement’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc would neither participate in the new government, nor grant it a vote confidence.
A Future Movement lawmaker confirmed the planned talks between Berri and Hariri on the Cabinet formation deadlock, now in its 11th month with no solution in sight.
“Certainly, when Prime Minister Hariri is back in Beirut, he will meet with Speaker Nabih Berri to find out where his initiative to resolve the Cabinet crisis stands, especially since Berri has been saying that the initiative is continuing,” Future MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star. “When Speaker Berri says his initiative is still in place, this means a period of waiting until Berri, following discussions, with Hariri declares that the Cabinet issue is completely blocked.”
Hajjar reiterated that stepping down remained one of Hariri’s options in the face of the continued obstruction by Aoun and his son-in-law, Bassil, of his attempts to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists in line with the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War. Hariri has said that stepping down was a “serious option.”
Hariri has been away for more than two weeks on a private visit to Abu Dhabi and his absence has halted contacts aimed at resolving differences between him and Aoun on the makeup of a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third plus one [veto power] to any side to enact reforms and salvage the country from all-out economic collapse.
Hariri has put on hold for now his decision to step down in order to give a last chance to Berri’s initiative. The initiative, backed by Hariri and most of Lebanese parties, calls for the formation of a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power to any side.
The Cabinet formation process has been stalled for months over a rift between Aoun and Hariri regarding who should name two Christian ministers who are not part of the president’s Cabinet share. Aoun and Bassil strongly reject Hariri’s insistence on naming the two Christian ministers which the premier-designate argues is part of his constitutional powers. Hariri also wants the FPM’s Strong Lebanon bloc to grant a confidence vote to the new government in exchange for allotting eight ministers to Aoun in the proposed 24-member Cabinet.
The formation of a new government has become all the more urgent because it would be tasked with implementing a string of essential reforms to rescue the ailing economy and avert a much-feared social implosion. Implementation of long-overdue reforms is deemed crucial for unlocking billions of dollars in promised foreign aid to the cash-strapped country.
Lebanon is in the throes of a crippling economic and financial crisis, posing the gravest threat to its stability since the Civil War. The Lebanese pound has been in a free fall since October 2019, losing over 90 percent of its value, pushing more than half of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty and unemployment.
The FPM reiterated its call on Hariri to “return to Lebanon and assume his responsibility by expediting the formation of a government capable of achieving reforms and [the country’s] recovery,” said a statement issued after the weekly online meeting of the FPM’s political council chaired by Bassil Saturday.
Referring to last week’s ominous development in the northern city of Tripoli in which gunmen took to the streets, firing in the air to protest worsening economic conditions – an incident that raised fears of a social explosion – the statement said: “The FPM expresses its fear about suspicious attempts to undermine security by exploiting the pain of the people to incite troubles like to what nearly happened in Tripoli, which has the right like other areas to get electricity, water, medicine, food and security which cannot be compromised.” It warned of what it called “regional political plans” to enter the north or any other area under security pretexts.
So far, Hezbollah’s mediation bid has failed to convince Bassil to support Berri’s initiative. Bassil has described Berri’s Cabinet proposal, which divides the 24 ministers into three groups, as a “masked tripartite system” that divides power between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, instead of equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians as stipulated in the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Civil War.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli sounded pessimistic about the situation in view of the persisting Cabinet deadlock. “We are heading for difficult days and the country will slide from one bottom to a lower bottom if a government is not formed because we are facing a systematic plan for destruction and political exploitation on this rubble,” Ferzli said in a statement Saturday. “Therefore, [the formation] of a government is the only way to save the country.”
Meanwhile, a series of decisions taken by the judicial investigator into the Beirut Port explosion has stolen the political limelight, overshadowing the Cabinet deadlock.
The surprise move by Judge Tarek Bitar to prosecute and probably indict a large number of senior politicians, led by caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and current and former chiefs of security and military agencies, into last year’s massive explosion at Beirut Port that killed 210 people, wounded 6,000 and left entire neighborhoods in the capital in ruins, is likely to further delay the already-stalled Cabinet formation process, especially in the absence of contacts or meetings between the top leaders to resolve the crisis.
Worse still, there are fears in some political circles that Bitar’s dramatic decision might be linked to an escalating power struggle between Aoun and the FPM on the one hand, and Berri and Hariri on the other. Among the politicians mentioned by Bitar for interrogation in the port blast case are two current MPs and former ministers, Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, who belong to Berri’s parliamentary bloc, in addition to Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, head of General Security, who is close to the speaker. Current MP and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who used to belong to Hariri’s Future bloc, is also mentioned in the list of politicians for interrogation. It was noticed that none of the political, security or military figures mentioned in Bitar’s list is close or loyal to Aoun.
Those mentioned in Bitar’s list would be interrogated over possible intentional crimes of killing and negligence. Families of the victims and survivors of the blast have accused the ruling political class of corruption and negligence that led to the explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored at Beirut Port for years.