BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun accused Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati Tuesday of having “no intention” to form a Cabinet, an accusation that appeared to dim chances for breaking the three-month-long government impasse soon.
Aoun also reiterated his demand that the key Interior Ministry portfolio – currently a major bone of contention between Aoun and President Michel Sleiman – be allotted to a member of his Change and Reform bloc. He argued that his bloc is the second largest in Parliament after caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future bloc.
“There is nothing new about the Cabinet. We are getting the news from the newspapers … We do not see an intention to form the Cabinet because the reasons [for the delay in the formation] we are hearing are unjustified. We cannot fabricate reasons [for the delay],” Aoun told a news conference after chairing a meeting of his bloc at his residence in Rabieh, north of Beirut.
Renewing his demand for the Interior Ministry portfolio, which Sleiman was reported to be adamant on retaining for caretaker Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, Aoun said: “I am not at odds with anyone over the Interior Ministry. But I have the largest bloc [in the majority] and I want the Interior Ministry. Don’t I have the right to a sovereign ministry?”
He said that each large parliamentary bloc of a major sect has the right to one of the four sovereign ministries – Defense, Interior, Finance and Foreign Affairs.
Taking a direct swipe at Mikati for taking too much time in forming the Cabinet, probably because of the popular uprisings in the Arab world, Aoun said: “Anyone who is waiting for major events in the region does not want to form the Cabinet.”
Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said that the delay in the formation of a government was part of “a conspiracy against Lebanon and Syria, even if not deliberate.” Speaking at a ceremony to honor poet Najib Jamaleddin at the UNESCO Palace, Berri rejected the theory that Syria was to blame for the Cabinet deadlock.
“We are sure that the Syrian leadership is keen on Lebanon. Anyone who thinks that the delay in the Cabinet’s formation was due to Syrian reasons, let him know that brotherly Syria is the biggest loser from the absence of a Cabinet,” he said.
Referring to the six-week public protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Berri warned that strife in Syria would ignite a major conflagration in the Middle East.
“The regime’s stability in Syria is a Middle Eastern necessity. This is a political and pragmatic statement which is in the interest of Lebanon and Syria,” Berri said, adding: “Stability of the regime in Syria is a Lebanese interest. Any attempt to incite strife in Syria will lead to a Middle Eastern conflagration that cannot be extinguished.”
Berri warned that any Lebanese interference in the Syrian public protests would be tantamount to “playing with fire and with Lebanon’s fate.” He called for investigating allegations that Hariri’s Future Movement was involved in the Syrian unrest.
Shortly after Aoun spoke, a source close to Mikati said the row over the Interior Ministry portfolio was holding up the formation of a draft 30-member Cabinet lineup that has already been endorsed by the main parties of the March 8 alliance that backed Mikati for prime minister in January.These parties are the FPM, Hezbollah and Berri’s Amal Movement, in addition to Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt’s bloc.
“The Interior Ministry portfolio is still the main issue blocking the Cabinet’s formation,” the source told The Daily Star.
The source denied that Mikati presented new Cabinet lineups to Sleiman when he met him Tuesday. “It was a meeting for consultation on proposals to speed up the Cabinet’s formation,” he said.
Summing up the results of Mikati’s contacts, including his Monday meeting with MP Ali Hassan Khalil, a political adviser to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the source said: “Slow progress has been made in the Cabinet formation efforts, pending a solution for the Interior Ministry issue.”
A political source said that Mikati told Sleiman he could not allot the Interior Ministry portfolio to Baroud and that agreement should be reached on a consensus candidate to this post.
Mikati met separately Tuesday with Sleiman and Berri and briefed them on the results of his contacts on the Cabinet’s formation.
At his news conference, Aoun indirectly criticized Sleiman for his remarks on the Constitution. “Anyone who wants to speak about the Constitution without mentioning the text, I’ll stand up to him, whoever he might be, because the Constitution is not a doormat,” he said. Aoun has insisted that since the Constitution does not grant the president the right to have any ministerial portfolio, he must not have any representative in the Cabinet.
Sleiman said Sunday that the Constitution tasked him and the prime minister-designate with the formation of a government. “The Constitution does not allot shares to anyone but rather defines the legal framework governing the formation process, which top officials assume,” Sleiman told reporters at Bkirki after talks with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.
Meanwhile, Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc warned of the consequences of the delay in the Cabinet’s formation. “Leaving the country without a government in these extremely dangerous circumstances at the regional and Arab levels increases the burdens and responsibilities incurred on the president and the prime minister-designate,” said a statement after the bloc’s weekly meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. It accused the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, which backed Mikati, of pushing the country downward.
In Paris, a French official reiterated France’s support for Lebanese unity and independence. Asked whether he was worried about the delay in forming a new government in Lebanon, Bernard Valero, spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry, told reporters: “It’s important that the different Lebanese parties work together in a spirit of dialogue and consensus in order to preserve the unity, sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.” – With additional reporting by Hassan Lakkis