BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati appears to be close to clinching a deal from the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition to form a new Cabinet as Syria stepped in and put pressure on its allies to finalize an agreement soon, a senior March 8 source said Tuesday.
“We are very close to reaching understanding and agreement [on the Cabinet’s lineup]. But there is still some work to be done,” the source told The Daily Star.
“No one can tolerate to see many obstacles once the issue of the Interior Ministry is settled. The Cabinet issue is almost finished,” the source said.
The intensified efforts to break the three-month-long Cabinet deadlock followed strong Syrian pressure on the March 8 parties to speed up the government’s formation.
A high-ranking Syrian official has been in direct contact with leaders of March 8 parties to prod them to quickly form the government, the March 8 source said. “Syria has exerted a lot of pressure and pushed for a quick formation of the Cabinet,” the source said.
Syria’s ambassador, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, visited Baabda Palace Tuesday for talks with President Michel Sleiman, although an official statement said the two discussed bilateral relations and the situation in Syria, and not the government formation process.
The struggle between Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun is believed to be at the root of the Cabinet stalemate that has plunged the country into a power vacuum.
The source said that the rift over the Interior Ministry post was blocking the Cabinet’s formation.
“There is an agreement among all the parties that the Interior Ministry should be allotted to a consensus candidate,” the source said. He added that a wide range of choices, including names of military officers, civilians and retired army officers, have been proposed for the Interior Ministry.
In addition to Sleiman and Aoun, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, led by Speaker Nabih Berri, have also proposed consensus candidates for the Interior Ministry, the source said.
The source spoke shortly after Mikati met with Sleiman at the Presidential Palace in Baabda to discuss with him the latest 30-member Cabinet lineup, including proposed names for the Interior Ministry portfolio.
Sleiman and Mikati discussed the latest developments related to the Cabinet, the state-run National News Agency said, without giving further details.
Mikati did not speak to reporters after the meeting. He later met with Berri to brief him on his talks with Sleiman.
A source close to Mikati said the prime minister-designate consulted with Sleiman on “new ideas” to end the rift over the Interior Ministry portfolio.
“There is nothing final yet concerning the Cabinet’s formation. Matters are good and positive but the final results are subject to their conclusion,” the source told The Daily Star Tuesday night. The source said it was too early to talk about the Cabinet’s formation.
Earlier Tuesday, Mikati met with MP Ali Hassan Khalil, a political adviser to Berri, and Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, to discuss the latest Cabinet lineup. The two advisers have been involved in mediation efforts to break the stalemate.
The meeting was positive and agreed on the final list of names of candidates for the Interior Ministry portfolio, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television reported. It quoted sources of the participants as saying that they were satisfied with the list, stressing that there was no reason for a further delay.
Under Syrian pressure, the March 8 parties have intensified consultations to find a consensus candidate to the Interior Ministry portfolio acceptable to both Sleiman and Aoun.
While Aoun had initially demanded that the portfolio be allotted to a member of his parliamentary Change and Reform bloc, Sleiman was also adamant on retaining incumbent Ziyad Baroud. The two men finally agreed to accept a consensus candidate.
The intensified efforts to break the Cabinet impasse came a day after Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt sounded the alarm bell about the power vacuum by issuing a stern warning to the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and accusing it of failing to form a government. He threatened to withdraw his parliamentary bloc’s support for the new majority if a government was not formed soon.
It was Jumblatt’s harshest criticism yet of his allies in the new Parliament majority since deciding, in a major policy shift in January, to throw his bloc’s support behind Mikati, the March 8 alliance’s candidate in the battle for premiership against caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The votes of Jumblatt’s lawmakers shifted the parliament majority from Hariri’s March 14 coalition to the March 8 camp.
Lebanon has been under a caretaker Cabinet since the collapse of Hariri’s government on Jan. 12 in a long-simmering feud between Hariri and the March 8 alliance over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which is probing the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Mikati, the Tripoli MP and telecom tycoon, nominated by March 8, was appointed on Jan. 25 to form a new Cabinet.Earlier Tuesday, Aoun accused Mikati of not having the will to form a Cabinet. He also said that once the problem over the Interior Ministry is solved, problems over other ministries will crop up.
“There is no will to form the government. When the problem of the Interior Ministry is solved, they will create other problems, like the problem of the Health Ministry, the Public Works Ministry, the Energy Ministry and the Telecommunications Ministry because there is no will to facilitate the formation of the government,” Aoun said after chairing a meeting of his Change and Reform bloc.
He said while the president and the prime minister-designate have the prerogatives to form the government, “we have the prerogatives to either grant it confidence or withhold it.”