Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: During its first session this year, the Cabinet Thursday allocated LL50 billion ($33 million) for parliamentary elections slated for May 6, as Prime Minister Saad Hariri weighed in to try to resolve a deep political rift between the president and the speaker. The earmarked money would be given to the Interior Ministry, which is tasked with organizing and overseeing the elections, Lebanon’s first since 2009.
However, the Cabinet session, chaired by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace, avoided the sensitive and widening dispute between Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri over the signing of a decree promoting a number of Army officers, ministerial sources said.
“Prime Minister Saad Hariri is tackling the decree issue, while Hezbollah is making efforts to help find a solution,” Youth and Sports Minister Mohammad Fneish, one of two Hezbollah ministers in the Cabinet, told The Daily Star shortly after the session.
Amid the monthlong standoff between Aoun and Berri, who are refusing to budge on their conflicting positions on the decree crisis, Hariri said last week he was mediating in the dispute and was optimistic about finding a solution.
In fact, at the end of the Cabinet session, Hariri met separately at Baabda Palace with Aoun and Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a top political aide to Berri, whose signature is currently at the center of the decree crisis.
“Discussions dealt with several topics, including tackling the decree issue. Efforts are being made in this respect,” Hariri said after his meeting with Aoun.
Media reports said Hariri was expected to visit Berri’s Ain al-Tineh residence this week for talks billed as “crucial” for breaking the decree deadlock.
In a bid to defuse tensions between Aoun and Berri, Hariri has asked Fouad Fleifel, the Cabinet’s secretary-general, to put off the publication of the decree in the Official Gazette until a solution is found to the dispute. However, Berri said the decree crisis dragged on, renewing his call for sending the decree to the finance minister to sign it as the only solution.
“The [decree] crisis is still at a standstill and there is nothing positive. Matters are still stalled at this point and there is nothing new,” Berri told visitors at Ain al-Tineh.
Asked on how the crisis could be resolved, Berri said: “I have drafted a solution. It’s a simple, ideal and legal solution, which is to send the decree to the finance minister to sign it.”
The speaker said he would not back off from his insistence that the finance minister should sign the decree “because this is a constitutional issue” related to the Taif Accord and the equal power-sharing power between Muslims and Christians.
Referring to the 1975-90 Civil War death toll, Berri said that 150,000 people had been killed and paid the price for the sidestepping of the signing of the finance minister and others. “Everyone must know that this [decree] issue is not easy and I will not back off from it at all,” he added.
Stating that he was keen on the military establishment and on the rights of military personnel, Berri said: “There is a decree which so far has not been put into effect because it needs the finance minister’s signature. There are legal rules that should be enforced. The finance minister must sign the decree.”
Tensions between Aoun and Berri have ramped up over the decree, which skipped the finance minister’s signature. The decree, signed by Aoun, Hariri and Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, promotes around 200 Army officers – all Christians aside from 15 Muslims – who served under Aoun in the late 1980s when he was Army commander, advancing their seniority and rank by one year.
Fneish also said the Cabinet did not discuss the long-running trash crisis amid differences among ministers on ways to resolve the problem of garbage collection.
At the beginning of the session, Aoun urged the ministers to complete preparations for the parliamentary elections under a new vote law and respect the May 6 deadline, Information Minister Melhem Riachi told reporters after the meeting.
The new law, ratified by Parliament on June 19, is based on proportional representation, with Lebanon divided into 15 electoral districts. It allows Lebanese nationals living overseas to vote for the first time. Over 90,000 Lebanese expatriates have registered to vote from overseas.
Aoun also called on ministers to begin studying the 2018 draft state budget and complete appointments to fill vacant posts in public administrations and institutions.
The president called for finding a final solution to the trash crisis and accelerate the implementation of infrastructure projects, such as public roads and international highways, dams, electricity, water and telecommunications, Riachi said.
Aoun also urged relevant ministries to make preparations for a donor conference in Rome to bolster the Lebanese Army and security forces and the Paris IV donor conference to shore up Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure.
Addressing the Cabinet session, Hariri highlighted the Cabinet’s political, security and economic achievements in 2017, while stressing the need for government solidarity in the New Year.
“We have big challenges [in 2018] and the Cabinet’s eyes should be focused on the interest of Lebanese citizens,” Hariri said. “It’s true that we are on the threshold of parliamentary elections, but issues that concern the people cannot be postponed.”
“I hope that this year will be a good year for all ministers and all Lebanese. The importance of the Cabinet is that it was a working group to protect the country and secure political, economic and security stability,” Hariri said. “This team has made many political, security and economic achievements over the past year.”
“The political views between those sitting around the table may differ on many things, but what brings us together is more important than any difference. The interest and the stability of the country are a goal we agreed upon, and we want to complete this path under the leadership of the president,” he added.
Hariri stated that the first Cabinet session of the New Year was “ a clear message that government’s solidarity will continue and that any dispute vanishes for the sake of the country and the protection of stability.” He thanked the Lebanese Army and all security apparatuses for their efforts in securing the “most peaceful Christmas and New Year celebrations.”
The Cabinet tackled 43 items related to health and economic affairs, as well as to gifts and agreements with foreign countries and to various other administrative and financial issues.
Contrary to expectations, Riachi said a Judicial Council probe into clashes in Lebanon’s northeastern region from 2012 to 2017 was not discussed.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 05, 2018, on page 1.