Intensified efforts to promote 24-member Cabinet proposal

BEIRUT: Efforts will be stepped up next week by local players to promote a proposal for the formation of a 24-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists with no veto power granted to any side, an official source said Sunday, in the latest bid to break the monthslong government deadlock.

The local efforts come in tandem with an intensified flurry of Arab and foreign diplomatic activity aimed at exerting pressure on Lebanon’s rival political leaders to agree on the rapid formation of a new government to be tasked with enacting urgent reforms and halting the country’s economic collapse.

The 24-member Cabinet proposal has been made by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt to President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the source said. Both Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have not yet commented on the proposal which has been welcomed by Berri, the source familiar with the matter told The Daily Star.

Hariri, who has long insisted on a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists, refusing to increase it, was also reported to have held a lengthy behind-the-scenes meeting with Berri Thursday focusing on Joumblatt’s proposal which divides the suggested Cabinet of 24 ministers into three eights: Eight ministers to Aoun, eight ministers to Hariri and allies, and eight ministers to the Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies. This division will ensure no side will gain veto power, a major hurdle that has blocked for months Hariri’s attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of specialists in line with the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of its worst economic meltdown since the 1975-90 Civil War.

Joumblatt’s proposal appeared to be gaining ground after Aoun and Hariri last Monday failed to make any breakthrough in the Cabinet formation stalemate, threatening to plunge the crises-ridden country into instability and further economic turmoil.

Media outlets said Berri is preparing to launch a new initiative to break the Cabinet deadlock based on Joumblatt’s proposal next week. MPs of Berri’s parliamentary bloc could not be reached to comment on the speaker’s planned initiative.

But a source close to the Amal Movement recalled that Berri, despite the deepening political and economic crises, had declared that he would not give up hope for saving the country.

“Speaker Berri is continuing his efforts to rescue Lebanon. The first step is the formation of a new government to rescue the country. Berri has linked the success of any initiative to form a government to the president’s team abandoning its demand for a blocking third [veto power] after which he would intervene to facilitate the formation,” the source told The Daily Star.

“The main theme is: If the Free Patriotic Movement agrees to abandon the blocking third, the government could be born by Tuesday,” the source said, adding that the next 48 hours could be decisive on whether the Cabinet formation efforts would make progress or suffer a new setback.

The official source said Joumblatt had made his proposal during his surprise meeting with Aoun last week after which he called for a compromise over the formation of a new government.

“During the meeting, Aoun and Joumblatt talked about a Cabinet of 18, 20, 22 and 24 ministers, saying the number of ministers was not important and that what mattered was an agreement on the Cabinet setup,” the source told The Daily Star.

Joumblatt, according to the source, told Aoun that a 24-member Cabinet is “good and will be satisfactory to everyone.” The PSP leader later conveyed the proposal to Berri who welcomed it, saying he had no problem with raising the number of Hariri’s proposed 18-member Cabinet to 24 ministers.

“Still, there is no formal initiative to be announced by Berri because the speaker has not yet officially adopted it,” the source said.

“But it is clear that starting next week will see an intensified flurry of political activity to promote the proposal of a 24-member Cabinet, as well as the government’s program with regard to conducting a forensic audit [of the Central Bank’s accounts] and fighting corruption. These points need consensus,” the source said.

He added that next week would see an exchange of ideas by Aoun, Hariri and Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai in an attempt to reach an “integrated Cabinet formula”. The source noted that the issue of a blocking third [veto power] “is no longer on the cards because neither the president, nor any of the parties is demanding it.”

Referring to the flurry of meetings held by the US, French, Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors this week with Aoun, Hariri, Berri and Joumblatt in a bid to facilitate the government formation, the source said: “The ambassadors’ activity has activated the stalled Cabinet formation process but they will not interfere in details and they will not launch any initiative because if they do they will appear to be intervening [in Lebanon’s internal affairs]. Instead, they will support any initiative on which the Lebanese parties agree. In their last meeting, the US, French, Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors said they will support anything on which the Lebanese agree within the broad lines of a government of specialists that does not include political parties.”

US Ambassador Dorothy Shea, who met this week with Aoun and Hariri, urged Lebanese leaders to set their differences aside and reach a compromise to form a new government to rescue the country from its many crises.

Similarly, Saudi Ambassador Walid Bukhari met Saturday with Joumblatt at the latter’s hometown in Mukhatra in the Chouf as part of his visits to top Lebanese political and religious leaders, discussing ways of helping Lebanon overcoming its severe economic and political crisis.

During the meeting, Joumblatt briefed Bukhari on his proposal for a Cabinet compromise to pull the country out of its current crises.

After meeting Aoun in a rare visit to Baabda Palace, Bukhari called for the rapid formation of a new government in Lebanon to implement “fundamental reforms” to rescue the country from its worst financial crisis in decades.

In her meetings with top Lebanese leaders, French Ambassador Anne Grillo has been pushing for the formation of a “mission” government stipulated in the French initiative to be tasked with implementing a slew of administrative and economic reforms badly needed to unlock promised international financial aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.

Rai called on Aoun and Hariri to meet and agree on the formation of a new government that would implement reforms and begin an economic and financial rescue.

“Palm Sunday comes while families are sad waiting for the feast gift, a nonpartisan rescue government made up of best specialists in sciences, expertise, and administration, free of any partisan and political stripe and of any subservience and capable of carrying out reforms and revitalizing the country,” Rai said in his sermon after leading Palm Sunday Mass at his seat in Bkirki, northeast of Beirut.

“In order for this gift to come true, we hope that the president and the prime minister-designate will realize that, based on mutual confidence and joint responsibility, [they] are governed to consult and agree in accordance with the rule that has been in place since the constitutional amendments in 1990 after the Taif [Accord] when they decide together the criteria and each one of them chooses ministers and then they agree on the entire [Cabinet] lineup,” Rai added.

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