New Aoun-Hariri tensions dim hopes for Cabinet formation

BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun Monday ramped up his diatribe against Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, accusing him of undermining the rules adopted in the government formation process and of seeking to monopolize the formation.

Aoun’s remarks, reflecting long-simmering tensions and a crisis of confidence with Hariri, are bound to cast a pall of gloom on ongoing local efforts, as well as an energetic flurry of Arab and foreign diplomatic activity aimed at breaking the stalemate that has left the country for more than seven months without a fully empowered government to deal with multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn.

The new tensions came exactly a week after Aoun and Hariri had failed to agree on the formation of a new government, threatening to plunge the crises-ridden country into instability and further economic turmoil.

In a brief response to Aoun’s harsh rhetoric against him, Hariri wrote on his Twitter account: “We got the message. There is no need to respond. We implore God to have mercy on the Lebanese.”

Aoun, who last week met with the US, French and Saudi ambassadors as part of the envoys’ moves aimed at pressing Lebanon’s political adversaries to agree on the rapid formation of a Cabinet to be tasked with enacting urgent reforms and halting the country’s economic collapse, underlined the need for a new government to be set up as soon as possible to tackle the deteriorating economic and living conditions.

Speaking during a meeting at Baabda Palace with a delegation from the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, he implicitly accused Hariri of seeking to monopolize the government formation and ignore the president’s role in the process.

Aoun stressed “the need for the one who is designated to form a government to be convinced of the difficulty of reaching a solution in this respect if the formation is done by one person.”

“There are several criteria on whose basis the government is formed, especially with regard to the distribution of balance. This cannot be attained by one person monopolizing the formation process,” Aoun said, adding: “We must find solutions in order to bring balance back to what it was and for those who have powers [in Cabinet formation] to exercise their powers.”

The president was clearly referring to his role in the Cabinet formation process, including the selection of names of Christian ministers. Aoun’s insistence on naming Christian ministers in Hariri’s proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists and his demand for key ministries and veto power have blocked the government formation.

Aoun has been accused repeatedly in the past by Hariri’s Future Movement and former premiers Najib Mikati, Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam of violating the Constitution and infringing on the prime minister’s constitutional powers in the Cabinet formation process.

In an interview published in Al-Joumhouria newspaper Monday, Aoun kept up his criticism of Hariri, accusing the premier-designate of making “a Cabinet approach that undermined all the rules to which we have been accustomed in adopting in the formation of governments.”

“Therefore, the [national] interest is simply for him [Hariri] to respect those rules,” he said. “He [Hariri] knows that I am ‘desperate’ for the formation of a government. But this does not mean that it is his right to exploit my extreme eagerness to have [the government] formed at the quickest time in order for him to impose on me a [Cabinet] setup that is suitable to him but not to the country.”

Aoun denied Hariri’s accusations that he insisted on gaining a blocking third [veto power] in the new government. “By virtue of my position as president of the republic, I can intervene, and therefore, there is no need for me to have a blocking third,” he said. He added that it was strange for Hariri to insist on the formation of a Cabinet whose members are specialists, “while he himself has nothing to do with specialization.”

Likewise, Aoun criticized Hariri for insisting on an 18-member Cabinet, refusing it to increase it. He said Hariri had rejected his proposal to form a 20, 22, or 24-member Cabinet to protect national balance without veto power granted to any side. Aoun also denied allegations he was blocking the government formation with the aim of pushing Hariri to step down.

After holding his 18th meeting with Aoun since his designation on Oct. 22 that failed to break the Cabinet impasse last Monday, Hariri said the president insisted on gaining veto power in the new government, a major hurdle that has blocked the formation and something that the premier-designate has vowed not to grant to any party.

The latest Aoun-Hariri spat came as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri warned that Lebanon was in danger to sink like the Titanic.

“The country as a whole is in danger if a government is not formed in two months. The entire country is [like the] Titanic. It’s about time to wake up because eventually if the ship sinks, no one will remain and the country will sink with us all,” Berri said during a Parliament session at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut.

Lawmakers passed Monday two draft laws, one on the return of squandered funds and the other to approve a $200 million advance from the 2021 state budget for Electrcite du Liban to be able to generate power for the country.

Responding to an MP who asked him what they would do in a month and a half when the $200 million advance was used up, Berri said “after a month and a half, there won’t be a country if we stay this way.”

The Aoun-Hariri tensions come as efforts would be stepped up this 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 told The Daily Star Sunday.

The 24-member Cabinet proposal has been made by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt to Aoun and Berri, the source said. Both Aoun and Hariri have not yet commented on the proposal which has been welcomed by Berri.

Berri was also reported to be preparing to launch a new initiative to break the Cabinet deadlock based on Joumblatt’s proposal.

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.

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.

“What kind of mines or sanctions, individual or collective, that are preventing the Cabinet formation in Lebanon?” Joumblatt asked in a tweet.

The PSP command council, which met under Joumblatt Monday, stressed that a compromise based on mutual concessions by the rival parties was the only solution to the Cabinet crisis.

“A compromise alone can release the new government on the basis of mutual concessions and by giving priority to the national interest,” said a statement issued after the meeting.

“It has become known that there is no hope to begin tackling the crises from which we are suffering except with a new government capable of implementing the promised reform program in accordance with the provisions of the French initiative. Perhaps, the will of a solution will be shown by those concerned [with Cabinet formation] before the slide toward the abyss,” the statement added.

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