Lebanon News

Cabinet deadlock increases chances of Hariri stepping down

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaks after a meeting with Aoun at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, Feb. 12, 2021. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: With the Cabinet formation efforts at a dead end and with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s initiative being stalled after it was rejected by MP Gebran Bassil, the prospects of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stepping down have increased, a political source and a Future Movement MP said Monday.

“The chances of Prime Minister Hariri stepping aside are increasing in the face of the persisting obstruction of his efforts to form a new government to deliver reforms and rescue the country’s ailing economy,” the political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

However, the source stressed that Hariri, who is expected to return to Beirut this week from a private visit to Abu Dhabi, would not step down before choosing a candidate for the premiership whom he could trust to carry out essential reforms, resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a financial rescue program, and supervise next year’s parliamentary elections.

Lebanon began talks with the IMF on a $10 billion bailout package in May 2020, but the negotiations have been stalled by a dispute between different interest groups representing Lebanese banks and the government over the size of losses in the Central Bank.

A Future Movement lawmaker confirmed that stepping down remained one of Hariri’s options in the face of the continued obstruction by President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, of his attempts to form 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.

“There is no doubt that the general situation and the accelerating collapse in the country are among the factors pressing Prime Minister Saad Hariri to do what is necessary to halt this collapse,” Future MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star.

“This runs contrary to the position of President Aoun and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. Aoun does not care for the suffering and pains of the people. His main concern is only to have a government that he can control in order to secure Bassil’s political future,” he said.

“Does this mean that [Hariri] stepping down is possible? Yes, stepping down is possible like other options. Does this mean that the chances of stepping down are increasing? Probably,” Hajjar said.

Declaring that Hariri has not yet reached the stage where he would decide whether to quit, the Future MP said: “Stepping down is still one of the options on the table.”

The possibility of Hariri stepping down is bound to throw the crises-ridden country into further political and economic turmoil. This is because the appointment of a new prime minister and his attempts to form a new Cabinet would be a drawn-out process that would prolong the political stalemate that for more 10 months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to tackle multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that is threatening the Lebanese with poverty and hunger.

The possibility of Hariri bowing out comes as Lebanon is sliding toward total chaos driven by the Lebanese pound’s dramatic nosedive against the US dollar that sent angry Lebanese to the streets across the country over the weekend, blocking highways with burning tires in Beirut and other areas and attacking public utilities to protest the deteriorating economic conditions.

The pound eased a bit from its record low Monday, trading at LL17,650 to the dollar on the black market. Exchange dealers said they were selling the dollar for LL17,700 and buying it for LL17,600, compared to LL18,000 and LL17,900 Saturday -- a record low.

The collapsing pound coincided with the breakdown of public services that has left the country in long hours of darkness and with closed gas stations as a result of severe fuel, gasoline and diesel shortages that have threatened to bring to a complete halt private generators on which the majority of the Lebanese and businesses, including hospitals, depend for electricity.

Lebanon’s national currency has been in free fall since late 2019 as the impact of a political paralysis alongside the lifting of subsidies on essential goods has plunged the country into deeper economic and political turmoil. The pound has now lost more than 90 percent of its value on the parallel market, sending prices of food and other basic items skyrocketing and pushing more than half of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty and unemployment.

While Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has said he presented “new ideas” to break the Cabinet deadlock after accepting Bassil’s request for help in securing Christian rights, the head of the party’s parliamentary bloc called on Aoun and Hariri to make mutual concessions to facilitate the government formation. MP Mohammad Raad warned that if a new government was not formed now, it might not be formed later.

“We appeal to everyone to make concessions to one another in order to form a government which is considered the gateway to hold parliamentary elections. If the government is not formed now, no one can guarantee it will be formed later,” Raad told a memorial ceremony in the southern town of Nabatieh for five members of a family who were killed in a car accident last week on the Sidon-Jiyeh highway.

He said politicians who say that the problem that is delaying the Cabinet formation was over the naming of two Christian ministers are “lying to the Lebanese.”

“There is someone who does not want the formation of a government and he knows himself and political circles know him. They want from now to open the parliamentary election battle although there are about 10 months until the elections,” Raad said.

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 Amal Movement Monday called on rival factions to stop the exchange of recriminations that are obstructing the formation of a government based on Berri’s initiative.

“The country has almost reached the point of no-return with the continued political procrastination and arrogance that are blocking the formation of a government based on Speaker Nabih Berri’s initiative, which is proposed as a solution at a time when citizens are starving,” said a statement issued after the weekly meeting of Amal’s politburo.

The statement called for a halt to “recriminations, fictitious battles and statements designed to divert attention from the main problem represented in obstructing all solutions and attempting to devise unconstitutional alternatives that cannot save the nation.”

Despite being rejected by Aoun and Bassil, Berri has vowed to press on with his initiative aimed at breaking the Cabinet deadlock. 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 granted to any side.

 

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