SUN 23 - 2 - 2020
Date: Jan 17, 2020
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: Last-minute snags delay government formation
 Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Last-minute snags have delayed the formation of a new government that was expected to be announced this week after major progress was made in talks Thursday between Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab and the Parliament speaker, political sources said.

One snag that will hinder the government formation arose from Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh’s insistence on being allotted two ministries, instead of one, in an 18-member government of specialists planned by Diab, a political source familiar with the Cabinet formation process said.

Likewise, lawmaker Talal Arslan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, is demanding that his party be represented with the Industry Ministry, in addition to another ministry representing the Druze sect, the source added.

Arslan’s Druze rival, Walid Joumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, has said his party’s bloc will not participate in the next government. Neither will the blocs of the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party, leaving Diab with the choice of forming a “one-sided” government that represents only the Free Patriotic Movement, the Amal Movement, Hezbollah and their allies.

Earlier Thursday, an official source said that the premier-designate was expected to announce the formation of an 18-member government of experts in the coming hours after major hurdles over some ministries had been overcome.

“Major progress was made today [Thursday] during the meeting between the prime minister-designate and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, paving the way for the announcement of the new government in the coming hours,” the source told The Daily Star.

Despite the positive meeting between Berri and Diab that raised hopes for the formation this week of a new government urgently needed in the protest-hit country to grapple with demands of the 3-month-old unprecedented popular uprising against the ruling political elite, the source said: “There are still different viewpoints over the names of one or two ministers.”In a sign that a final Cabinet lineup was imminent, Diab met Thursday with Berri for more than two hours at the speaker’s Ain al-Tineh residence, and the two sought to iron out remaining kinks hindering the formation of a new government.

Diab did not speak to reporters after the meeting that was also attended by caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a key aide to Berri who had participated in the government formation efforts to resolve the representation of the Shiite sect.

Khalil described the Berri-Diab talks as “very positive.”

“The meeting has created the climate for agreement on the formation of a government of specialists that represent the broadest possible segments. I think we made very big progress today to the extent that we can say tha we are on the brink of forming a new government made up of experts,” Khalil said in televised remarks.

“What matters is that it will be a government of 18 specialists as the prime minister-designate has declared in which he adopted unified criteria. What’s important is that we are on the threshold of forming [a Cabinet] as soon as possible,” he added.

Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri Thursday blamed the economic and financial crisis on the state’s failure to implement reforms. He chaired a meeting to discuss the financial situation that was attended by Khalil and Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh at his Downtown Beirut residence.

“We have to be honest with the people about the reasons that led us to where we are. The main problem is that the state has not achieved the reforms it should have undertaken,” Hariri added.

“Paris I, II and III conferences were held. In Paris II, Lebanon received $10 billion, which represented one-third of Lebanon’s public debt, and we could have paid all the dues at that time. If some people did not want to fight political Harirism, we would not be here today. Those who fought political Harirism are the ones who brought the country to where it is today,”Hariri said.

He did not name those who fought “political Harirism.”

In response to a question about the possibility of swapping Eurobonds or rescheduling the debt, Hariri said: “Now there will be a new government that will deal with this issue as it deems appropriate. But today the discussion with Minister Khalil and the governor of the Central Bank focused on assessing the financial and banking situation in the country.”

Responding to accusations that he defended the banks and abandoned the people, Hariri said: “I am neither on this side nor on that one. I am with being honest with the Lebanese citizen and telling them the facts as they are. We should not lie to the Lebanese citizen and tell him that the Central Bank and the banks are the ones to be blamed. Do they bear part of the responsibility? Yes, they bear part of it. But are they the whole problem? No.”

Since he was designated by President Michel Aoun on Dec. 19 to form a new government after gaining the support of a parliamentary majority, Diab has pledged to form a small Cabinet made up of “independent specialists” who are not affiliated with political parties.

This is a major demand of hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets since Oct. 17, calling for a change of the decades-old confessional ruling system and the removal of the entire political class they deem corrupt and incompetent.

However, hundreds of protesters rallied around the Parliament building Thursday night to denounce the planned formation of a government of specialists after names of the 18 ministers were circulated on social media. The protesters posted signs on social media accusing the ruling political elite of naming their advisers or aides as ministers in the new government. They called for a general strike Friday and a march toward Parliament Saturday to protest Diab’s planned government.

Diab replaces Hariri, who resigned as prime minister on Oct. 29 under pressure of the popular uprising.

In addition to the nationwide anti-government protests, Lebanon is grappling with the worst economic and financial crisis since 1975-90 Civil War. The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the U.S. dollar, has lost as much as 40 percent of its value on the black market. Amid a dollar liquidity crunch, individual banks have imposed informal capital controls, thousands of jobs have been lost and many businesses shuttered.

The international community has called for Lebanon to form a new, credible government as quickly as possible to avoid a total economic and financial collapse, and enact a series of key reforms in order to unlock over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged at the CEDRE conference held in Paris in 2018.

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