THU 12 - 12 - 2019
Date: Jun 15, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: Cabinet shifts into gear, picks for public posts not on agenda
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The Cabinet is set to meet next week to address over 100 items on the agenda, excluding key administrative appointments. It will be the first session in three weeks, following a surge in political tensions and a break due to Eid al-Fitr, political sources said Friday.Prime Minister Saad Hariri is set to chair the Cabinet session at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Grand Serail.

“The issue of administrative appointments has not been listed on the Cabinet agenda, in order to give time for consultations aiming to soften the political rivals’ positions on their share in key state posts,” a political source familiar with the issue told The Daily Star.

The source said the issue of appointments might not be included on the agenda of another Cabinet session set for next week in order to ensure some sort of consensus among the major parties represented in the government on filling vacancies in administrative, security and judicial posts.

No details of the 100-item agenda were available, as the list is usually distributed to ministers by the Cabinet’s secretary-general 48 hours ahead of the meeting. But the same source said the agenda included grants, ministers’ travel plans and items that were not tackled in last month’s Cabinet sessions.

After his return following Eid al-Fitr, Hariri met Wednesday with President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace. The move eased political tensions among rival factions, mainly the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by Aoun, and Hariri’s Future Movement, and set the stage for the resumption of Cabinet sessions.

A source at Baabda Palace had told The Daily Star Thursday that Aoun and Hariri had agreed to hold two Cabinet sessions next week that would begin addressing a new batch of key appointments in the public administration, a sensitive issue that had caused divisions among ministers in the past.

After 20 sessions, the Cabinet on May 27 endorsed the draft 2019 state budget, which seeks to reduce Lebanon’s deficit to 7.59 percent of gross domestic product from an estimated 11.5 percent last year.

Slashing the fiscal deficit is a key demand of international donors. The budget contains a string of austerity measures, including cuts to public spending and tax hikes.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Cabinet session, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who heads the FPM, sought to defuse tensions with Hariri after reportedly accusing Sunni political leaders of grabbing Christians’ rights to key government posts. Bassil said Thursday he was ready to meet Hariri to iron out the latest disagreement between the two powerful parties.

The Central News Agency, quoting FPM sources, said relations between Hariri and Bassil were “very good,” contrary to what some were trying to portray for “ulterior motives, especially by those who stand to lose from the FPM-Future understanding and the [2016] presidential settlement” that led to Aoun’s election as president and returned Hariri to the premiership.

It said some of the losers from the FPM-Future understanding were close to Hariri, while others were from outside the Future Movement.

“The great understanding protects the nation, national unity and partnership because it emanates from principles of the [National] Pact [on power sharing],” the agency quoted the FPM sources as saying. It added that Bassil was due to return to Beirut late Friday from visits to Britain and Ireland.

But Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea criticized Bassil for allegedly seeking to have a monopoly over key state posts allotted to Christians in a new batch of anticipated appointments in the public administration.

Geagea Thursday dispatched former Information Minister Melhem Riachi for a meeting with Hariri, discussing among other things, the expected appointments.

“Riachi conveyed a message from Geagea to Hariri saying that the Lebanese Forces will not accept being excluded from the appointments and it wants its share in state posts,” MTV reported Friday night.In an interview with the Central News Agency Friday, Geagea called for adopting a mechanism based on qualifications and competency in selecting candidates for key public positions.

Asked whether the LF and the FPM were heading for a clash over the appointments, Geagea said: “The problem is that Minister Gebran Bassil, in the same way Prime Minister Saad Hariri is choosing Sunni appointments and the two Shiite parties [the Amal Movement and Hezbollah] are choosing Shiite appointments, wants to choose all Christian appointments, forgetting that there are two [Christian] parties which he must take into consideration.”

While defending the 2016 settlement reached between Aoun and Hariri, Geagea called on the president to launch “a salvation initiative” and to rein in Bassil, who is Aoun’s son-in-law.

“The prevailing impression among most political parties in the country indicates that Minister Bassil is controlling the political game and there is no one to stop him,” the LF chief said.

“I assert that the [presidential] settlement was right, but what is happening inside the settlement is not healthy. The settlement is not a framework for eliminating the other, nor is it a race for the presidency that will remove anyone standing in his [Bassil’s] way.

“With regard to a salvation initiative, only President Michel Aoun holds the key for it and we are counting on him,” Geagea added.

Bassil has not concealed his presidential aspirations.

Aoun had said Bassil was a front-runner in the presidential election due at the end of Aoun’s six-year mandate in 2022. Geagea and Marada Movement leader and former MP Sleiman Frangieh are also two main contenders for the presidency, reserved for a Maronite under the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem said the party’s 13 MPs would seek to cancel new taxes contained in the draft budget.

“The budget being discussed in Parliament today has some loopholes linked to taxes on the people. God willing, we will work to foil the idea of imposing new taxes on the people,” Qassem told a memorial ceremony in the southern village of Bazourieh in honor of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s sister Zakiya, who died last week.

“But I want to say something important: The Lebanese government is responsible for discussing the economic policy in Lebanon. Therefore, what is the Lebanese government’s position on the agricultural, industrial, commercial, touristic, teaching and public services policy?” he added.

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