SAT 19 - 1 - 2019
Oct 18, 2018
The Daily Star
Lebanon: Eleventh-hour talks to find fix for Christian representation
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Senior officials of the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces Wednesday held eleventh-hour negotiations in a bid to resolve the problem of Christian representation, as political rivals held on to their optimism that a new Cabinet would be formed later this week.
The ice-breaking meeting between caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the FPM leader, and caretaker Information Minister Melhem Riachi from the LF was viewed as significant because it followed months of tensions and media campaigns between the two main Christian parties over Cabinet shares.
The meeting, held at the FPM’s headquarters in the town of Sin al-Fil and attended by FPM lawmaker Ibrahim Kanaan, was also deemed crucial given the monthslong fierce struggle between the FPM and the LF over Christian representation in the new government.
Riachi later met with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the latter’s Downtown residence to brief him on the outcome of the talks with Bassil, who had met with Hariri twice this week in an attempt to resolve the issue.
“Today was a positive day as a whole,” Riachi told reporters after meeting Hariri. He said he conveyed a message from LF leader Samir Geagea to Hariri and briefed him on his talks with Bassil. “Things will be good, God willing. We are waiting for answers within the next 48 hours on some points linked to the government composition,” Riachi said.
Asked whether the Justice Ministry would be allocated to the LF, Riachi said: “I will not talk about portfolios. We are waiting for good responses from the prime minister.”
Riachi, one of the three LF ministers in Hariri’s outgoing Cabinet, said he hoped the LF would be reciprocated with the minimum of its demands for ministerial posts after it made a lot of concessions to help in the Cabinet formation.
LBCI channel, quoting sources at Baabda Palace, said the Justice Ministry, coveted by the LF, would be allocated as part of Aoun’s Cabinet share, while the Education Ministry would be retained with former MP Walid Joumblatt’s parliamentary bloc.
“The parties’ struggle now centers on who takes the Public Works, Health and Labor ministries, even though Hariri has indicated allocating the Health portfolio to Hezbollah,” a source close to the formation process said.
Riachi denied that the LF’s Cabinet share was discussed during the meeting with Bassil. “This subject [the LF’s Cabinet share] is discussed with the prime minister-designate,” Riachi told reporters after the meeting with Bassil. He said the talks with Bassil focused on the inter-Christian reconciliation, sealed in the 2016 Maarab understanding signed between the FPM and the LF, which contributed to the election of Michel Aoun as president on Oct. 31, 2016.
“In the name of Samir Geagea, Minister Gebran Bassil and President Michel Aoun, we affirm that the [inter-Christian] reconciliation is sacred. All divergent viewpoints will not lead to a dispute between the two parties,” he said.
Kanaan called for the formation of a “productive” government. “[Aoun’s] term is the term of all of us. We want a productive government, not a government of barricades,” he said, referring to the frequent verbal clashes between the FPM and the LF ministers in Hariri’s outgoing Cabinet, mainly over the FPM’s plans to improve electricity supply.
Ahead of his meeting with Riachi, Bassil sounded upbeat about the government formation. “Inshallah, the government will be formed soon. What matters is that the government is effective and productive,” Bassil said at a joint news conference at the Foreign Ministry after talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He said “fair representation” would allow the new government to be formed by a decision by Aoun and Hariri. “We can say from today Mabrouk [congratulations],” Bassil said.
Bassil also met with Wafic Safa, Hezbollah’s top security official, discussing ways to eliminate the remaining hurdles to the Cabinet formation, the Central News Agency reported. The meeting came after Bassil’s reported talks last week with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, who has repeatedly called for the swift formation of a new government.
LF officials have accused Bassil of seeking to monopolize Cabinet seats and prevent the LF from obtaining significant Cabinet representation commensurate with the results of the May elections, in which the LF nearly doubled its number of MPs, from eight to 15. Bassil has recently toughened his stance by reiterating that the LF should not be allocated more than three ministers.
Hariri has stepped up meetings and consultations with various politicians in the past few days aimed at accelerating the formation of a national unity government representing all the main political parties.
Hariri has kept the outcome of his consultations shrouded in secrecy, refusing to give details on how a new draft Cabinet formula he is expected to present to Aoun this week would look like.
“Prime Minister Hariri is determined to announce the Cabinet lineup this week and he is waiting for Speaker Nabih Berri to return to Beirut,” a political source familiar with the formation process told LBCI channel.
Berri, currently in Geneva attending the 139th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly and is due to return to Beirut Friday, sounded optimistic about the Cabinet formation.
“I cannot say that the formation of the Lebanese government is finished. But I can say that there is progress and God willing, it will be formed soon,” Berri told Lebanese expatriates at a dinner hosted by the Lebanese Embassy in Geneva Tuesday night.
Top leaders underlined the importance of the swift formation of the government to cope with the worsening economic situation and implement structural reforms demanded by the CEDRE conference to salvage the country’s battered economy.
“The government formation is a priority for the time being,” Aoun said, speaking to visitors at Baabda Palace. He expressed hope that the government would be formed soonest “so that it can gear its efforts toward facing various challenges, at the top of which are economic challenges.”
Joumblatt echoed a similar view. “The acceleration of the Cabinet formation is extremely important because the economic situation is above any other consideration,” the PSP leader tweeted.
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