BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Wednesday he presented President Michel Aoun with a new Cabinet lineup in the hope of ending a political stalemate that for nearly 11 months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to tackle multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown.
It was Hariri’s first meeting with Aoun in nearly four months in a last-ditch attempt to resolve the government crisis before the premier-designate decides to step down should his proposed Cabinet lineup, the second since his designation on Oct. 22, be rejected by the president.
Speaking to reporters after the 30-minute meeting at Baabda Palace, Hariri said he presented Aoun with a Cabinet lineup of 24 nonpartisan specialists in line with the French initiative and also Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s initiative. Both initiatives call for a new Cabinet without a blocking one-third plus one [veto power] granted to any side.
“For me, this government can rescue the country and begin working seriously to halt the collapse,” Hariri said, adding that he asked the president to give his response to the proposed Cabinet lineup Thursday “so that I can act accordingly,” in a clear hint at the possibility of stepping down if Aoun’s response was negative.
“Nine months have passed on attempts to form the government. Now the moment of truth has come. God willing, tomorrow we will know the answer,” Hariri said.
The proposed Cabinet list divides the 24 ministers into three groups: Eight ministers for Aoun, eight ministers for Hariri and his allies, and eight ministers for Berri, Hezbollah and their allies, without veto power granted to any side.
Asked to comment on the Cabinet lineup, Aoun told reporters at Baabda Palace: “Let’s hope for the best.”
“The proposed Cabinet lineup with the names [of ministers] mentioned and the new distribution of portfolios will be the subject of discussion, study and consultation after which we can act accordingly,” said a statement issued by the presidency’s media office. The statement added that the distribution of the portfolios among the political parties and religious sects was different than those agreed upon earlier.
There are growing fears that Hariri’s decision to step aside is bound to throw crises-ridden Lebanon into further political and economic turmoil with all the dire consequences this entails for a country teetering on the verge of total economic collapse and facing the threat of a social explosion.
Mustapha Alloush, deputy head of the Future Movement, told The Daily Star Tuesday that if Aoun rejected the proposed Cabinet formula, Hariri would announce his decision to step down during an interview with Al-Jadeed TV Thursday night.
The Aoun-Hariri meeting followed weeks of tensions and rounds of war of words between them with each accusing the other of blocking the government formation and came amid mounting Western pressure, including the imposition of sanctions, on rival Lebanese factions to accelerate the Cabinet formation.
It also came a few hours after Hariri paid a short visit to Cairo where he held talks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi who expressed full support for the premier-designate in his efforts to resolve the crippling economic and political crisis in Lebanon.
Sisi welcomed Hariri, "reaffirming Egypt's full support for Hariri's political path which aims at restoring stability to Lebanon", and for his attempts to deal with challenges including the formation of a government, a presidency statement said.
Egypt was also reported to have asked Hariri not to give up on forming a Cabinet.
The regional television station Al Hadath, citing its sources, also said that Cairo would send a high-level delegation to Beirut soon to support efforts to name a government and that it would work on a road map to resolving the Lebanese crisis.
Hariri also met Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, who stated Egypt's support for Lebanon's "exit from the current situation, and the necessity for all Lebanese parties to prioritize Lebanon's highest interest over any narrow interests", according to tweets from Hariri and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
Hariri, who has been struggling since Oct. 22 to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to be tasked with implementing a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of a crippling economic and financial crunch, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War, has said stepping down was a “serious option.”
Aoun has rejected Hariri’s first draft Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists presented to him on Dec. 9, arguing it did not preserve the national balance.
Meanwhile, a special envoy of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since last year’s deadly Beirut Port explosion that killed 210 people, wounded thousands and ravaged entire neighborhoods in the capital, was holding talks with rival Lebanese leaders to push for the swift formation of a new government to save the country.
Patrick Durel, Macron's adviser for Middle East and North Africa affairs, Wednesday met separately with Aoun, Berri, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt and Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, a day after holding talks with Hariri and MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement.
Aoun briefed Durel on the difficulties and internal and external obstacles that have encountered the birth of a new government. He said he hoped that his meeting with Hariri would carry "positive indications" to break the Cabinet deadlock.
“Efforts are still being exerted to form a new government that will give first priority to achieving reforms, fighting corruption and proceeding with a financial forensic audit,” Aoun told Durel during the meeting held at Baabda Palace, according to the state-run National News Agency.
Renewing his support for the French initiative, Aoun thanked Macron for the “efforts he is making to support Lebanon and the assistance his country offered and the conferences the French president had organized for this purpose and the conference scheduled to be held on Aug. 4 in support of the Lebanese people.”
Durel’s visit comes amid intensified US-French diplomatic activity aimed at pulling Lebanon out of its severe political and economic crisis.
US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo met Monday with Saudi Ambassador Walid al-Bukhari at the Saudi Embassy in Beirut.
The meeting with Bukhari came a few days after the US and French ambassadors held talks with officials at the Saudi Foreign Ministry in Riyadh last week centering on ways to help Lebanon out of its political and economic crises.
The European Union Monday agreed to adopt a sanctions regime for Lebanese leaders by the end of July, France said, in an effort to force a stable government to emerge from nearly a year of political chaos following the Beirut blast.
Criteria for EU sanctions such as travel bans and assets freezes for Lebanese politicians are likely to include corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial misdeeds and human rights abuses, according to a diplomatic note seen by Reuters.
The FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc hoped that Hariri’s visit to Baabda Palace would lead to the formation of a government before Eid al-Adha, which begins on July 20, to implement reforms.