BEIRUT: A day after holding talks with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on the Cabinet crisis, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri plans a series of consultations before deciding on whether to proceed with his efforts to form a government of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power to any party or step aside.
Hariri’s behind-the-scene meeting with Berri Monday at the latter’s Ain al-Tineh residence was shrouded in complete secrecy as no statement was issued about the discussions. When contacted by The Daily Star, officials from the Future Movement and the Amal Movement refused to comment on the meeting, which was Hariri’s first after his return to Beirut Sunday from a two-day private visit to Abu Dhabi.
Hariri is slated to consult with former Premiers Najib Mikati, Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam on his next move, including the possibility of stepping down.
He is also set to chair a meeting of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc Wednesday to inform them of his decision on whether to push on with his efforts to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no blocking one-third plus one [veto power] to any party to step down.
“We have regular weekly meetings with Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the context of the Future bloc. This week, the bloc was supposed to meet today [Tuesday] but the meeting has been postponed until tomorrow [Wednesday],” Future MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star.
Asked what the chances were for Hariri stepping aside after his talks with Berri in the face of what Future Movement MPs have said the continued obstruction by President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, of his attempts to form a Cabinet of nonpartisan experts in line with the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from an unprecedented economic meltdown, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War, Hajjar said: “Priority is always for the formation of a government. What makes Prime Minister Saad Hariri step down is when he loses hope about the possibility of the team that is obstructing the Cabinet formation returning to their conscience.”
Being apprehensive that the country was sliding toward all-out economic collapse, “Hariri’s first option is always the formation of a government,” he said.
“The option of stepping down has been on the table. But until now, the option of forming a government is the one prevailing,” Hajjar added.
Future MP Walid Baarini said a new government could be formed this week if remaining hurdles were eliminated.
“We spoke with Mufti Derian about the Cabinet issue. Our hope in God is great that the government will see the light of day this week, although so far there are no positive indications about this,” Baarini said after a meeting with Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian at Dar al-Fatwa [the mufti’s seat] in Beirut.
“But we are optimistic for the best and are waiting for the news of the Cabinet formation at any time if [parties] show good intentions and obstacles are removed,” he added.
Media reports said when Hariri broached the idea of stepping down during his meeting with Berri, the speaker rejected it and insisted on the premier-designate continuing his efforts to form a government. In the event of Hariri insisting on stepping down, Berri asked him to name a candidate who would gain the Sunni political and religious support.
In remarks published by Nida al-Watan newspaper Tuesday, Berri said the Cabinet formation issue stood at a “crossroad.”
“Therefore, the situation must not continue as it is ... Either there is a government or there will be new ideas,” he said, adding that this did not mean that he will launch a new initiative to resolve the Cabinet crisis, now in its 11th month with no solution in sight.
Despite being rejected by Aoun and Bassil, Berri said he still upheld his initiative. “The initiative is still on track,” he said.
Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, has rejected Berri’s Cabinet proposal, describing it 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. Berri’s proposal calls for the formation of a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power to any side and divides the 24 ministers into three groups: Eight ministers for Aoun, eight ministers for Hariri and his allies, and eight ministers for Berri’s Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies.
In a televised speech Monday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said the stalled Cabinet formation process was poised for “decisive days” as contacts and meetings would be intensified to eliminate remaining obstacles following Hariri’s return to Beirut. His remarks came as Hezbollah was still mediating with Bassil to convince him to support Berri’s Cabinet initiative.
Hariri’s return to Beirut also raised the prospects of a meeting between him and Aoun to resolve differences over the makeup of a new government to implement reforms and rescue the country from all-out economic collapse. An official source told The Daily Star Monday that Aoun expected Hariri to visit Baabda Palace to “present him with a new Cabinet lineup in the hope of resolving the Cabinet crisis.”
Meanwhile, Qatar's Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani met Tuesday with Aoun for talks centering on bilateral relations and the crippling economic and political crises.
Sheikh Mohammad arrived here Tuesday on a one-day visit for talks with top leaders as part of Qatar’s efforts to defuse the political crisis in Lebanon. He was to meet later with Berri and Hariri. It was not immediately known whether the Qatari minister was carrying proposals to resolve the political crisis.
The Doha-based satellite channel Al-Jazirah said the Qatari minister’s visit was part of “Qatar’s efforts to help in resolving the political crisis in Lebanon.”
During a visit to Beirut in February, Sheikh Mohammad told Lebanese leaders they needed to form a new government before they could get aid to pull the country from its economic and financial crisis. In 2008, Qatar hosted rival Lebanese leaders, brokering the "Doha agreement" that ended 18 months of political conflict and averted the risk of civil war.