Aoun, Hariri set to meet amid dim hopes for Cabinet breakthrough

BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri are set to meet Monday for crucial talks amid low expectations that the meeting would break the monthslong Cabinet formation deadlock as differences remained over the makeup of the new government.

“Monday’s meeting promises to be decisive with regard to the fate of the Cabinet formation process. It will either clear the way for a breakthrough or lead to a further complication,” a political source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

But a source close the Hariri sounded downbeat about any positive outcome from the Baabda Palace meeting because, he said, Aoun still insisted on acquiring veto power in the new government.

“We have no expectations because President Aoun still insisted on a blocking third [veto power]. We are for a government made up of nonpartisan specialists,” the source told The Daily Star Sunday.

Worse still, a proposal by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah to Hariri to form a techno-political government has cast gloom on the outcome of the Baabda meeting, threatening to complicate the already stalled Cabinet formation process and bring it back to square one.

Such a proposal, which entails the expansion of Hariri’s proposed Cabinet of 18 nonpartisan specialists to 20 or 24 ministers, runs contrary to the premier-designate’s refusal to include representatives of political parties or raise the number of ministers.

Hariri has not yet commented on Nasrallah’s proposal. But a Future Movement MP said Hariri stood firm on his proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists in line with the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War.

“Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is sticking to a government of nonpartisan specialists and refuses to grant a blocking third [veto power] to any party. A government of nonpartisan specialists is in line with the specifications of the French initiative,” Future MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star Sunday.

Monday’s meeting comes amid a deepening rift between Aoun and Hariri over the size and shape of the new Cabinet that has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than seven months. Despite a series of local mediation efforts to narrow their differences, the two leaders have refused to budge on their conflicting positions on the distribution of key ministerial seats, namely the Justice and Interior ministries, the naming of Christian ministers and Hariri’s insistence not to grant veto power to any party.

It will be the 18th meeting between the two leaders since Hariri was designated on Oct. 22 to form a government of nonpartisan specialists to be tasked with enacting essential reforms contained in the French initiative.

The meeting comes four days after Aoun and Hariri held what was described as a “calm session,” a day after the two leaders engaged in a new war of words, trading responsibility for blocking the government formation.

Hariri said after meeting Aoun Thursday there was an “opportunity” now to form a new government to halt the economic collapse and relaunch stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout program to salvage Lebanon’s crumbling economy saddled with a soaring public debt of over $90 billion.

As he did Thursday, Hariri is not expected to bring with him a new Cabinet list and instead will seek to hear the president’s remarks on the first draft Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists he presented to the president on Dec. 9.

Similarly, Aoun, who had rejected the draft Cabinet lineup because, as he said in a televised speech Wednesday, it did not fulfill the minimum of national balance and the prerequisites of the National Pact on equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians, is waiting for the premier-designate to come up with a new Cabinet lineup that respects national balance.

But Hajjar ruled out the possibility of Hariri coming up with a new Cabinet list.

“With regard to [Aoun’s demand] to amend the draft Cabinet lineup, Hariri has said the Cabinet formation criteria will not be altered. If there is a question or a desire to change names [of ministers] or a change in the distribution of portfolios, Hariri has told Aoun he is ready to discuss it,” Hajjar said. He added that Hariri was waiting for Aoun to provide him with answers to questions he raised during their last meeting.

Asked what the chances are for the Baabda talks to break the Cabinet gridlock, Hajjar said: “We, like all the Lebanese, hope that things will go smoothly to pave the way for a solution unless there is an inherent desire for obstruction by Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil and therefore, they bear responsibility for this before the Lebanese people and history.”

Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, has been accused by Hariri and Future officials of blocking the government formation with his tough conditions, including a demand for veto power.

An official source said the fate of Monday’s meeting depended largely on Hariri providing Aoun with a “complete Cabinet list.”

“The Aoun-Hariri meeting is governed by two developments. The first is Walid Joumblatt’s visit to Baabda after which he said he had no problem with figures and that he did not insist on [a Cabinet of] 18 ministers and will accept a Cabinet of even 24 ministers in the event of a compromise. Joumblatt’s position has abolished the argument over the 18 ministers,” the source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

“The second development is the need to review even partially the distribution of portfolios among the sects [in an expanded Cabinet].This matter will be broached by the president and the premier-designate,” the source said, adding that Hariri is supposed to answer these two points.

“Hariri’s position on expanding the Cabinet is essential. If he accepts to raise the number of 18 ministers, a major part of the problem will be solved. But if he refuses, the crisis will persist,” the source said. “There is a third point relating to a complete Cabinet list requested by President Aoun from Prime Minister Hariri.”

“These three factors will decide the fate of tomorrow’s meeting,” the source added.

Despite his strained ties with Aoun, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt met the president Saturday and called for a compromise over the formation of a new government. “We have reached a total stalemate amid economic collapse,” Joumblatt told reporters at Baabda Palace. “Hunger is knocking at the doors of people. A compromise is now a necessity.”

Joumblatt, usually a harsh critic of Aoun, signaled his readiness to accept the expansion of the proposed 18-member Cabinet. “Figures, in my opinion, are no longer important because the country’s problems are beyond some figures to which some here or there are sticking.”

In what was seen as a negative development by the Future Movement camp, Nasrallah said in a televised speech Thursday he would support a new Cabinet if one is announced Monday, but said that a government formed solely of specialists would not last and would not be able to confront big challenges, including a request by the IMF to remove subsidies on fuel, medicine and wheat and lay off thousands of employees in the bloated public sector. He advised Hariri to form a political or a techno-political Cabinet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *