BEIRUT: Hopes for an imminent formation of a new government receded Thursday as haggling over the distribution of portfolios halted a final deal to break the three-month-long Cabinet stalemate, sources close to the Cabinet formation talks said.
In the meantime, the United States reiterated that the international community would assess its relationship with Lebanon’s new government based on the make-up and policy statement of the next Cabinet and the actions it takes concerning Lebanon’s international obligations, including the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
“The political climate regarding the Cabinet’s formation is positive, but there are no final and decisive results yet,” a source close to Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati told The Daily Star Thursday night.
The source said that Mikati was still waiting for answers to “some specific but essential points” he brought up during his meeting Wednesday with representatives of the four main parties concerned with the formation process.
“Matters are advancing and consultations are continuing. There are some points that need to be clarified,” the source added. He refused to say what these points are.
Mikati’s Wednesday meeting with caretaker Energy Minister Jebran Bassil, a son-in-law of Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, lawmaker Ali Hassan Khalil, a political adviser to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and caretaker Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi representing Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt failed to iron out differences over the distribution of portfolios among the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, including President Michel Sleiman’s share.
FPM sources said that the new hurdle after settling the dispute over the Interior Ministry portfolio is Sleiman’s demand for another Maronite minister on the grounds that the consensus candidate named to the Interior Ministry retired police officer, Brig. Gen. Marwan Charbel, is not fully part of his share in the new Cabinet. But Sleiman’s demand has been rejected by Aoun, the sources said.
Bassil told Mikati during Wednesday’s meeting that the FPM will not cede any of five Maronite portfolios in the new Cabinet, including one portfolio for Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh. Mikati has demanded the postponement of a meeting scheduled for Thursday with Bassil and Berri’s and Nasrallah’s advisers to hold further consultations to address the new demands, sources close to the Cabinet formation talks said.
The sources said that after resolving the Interior Ministry row, a “blackmail” process emerged over the Telecommunications, Justice and Energy Ministries, covering other ministries.
Mikati met Thursday with Aridi who accompanied Jumblatt on his visit to Damascus earlier in the day for talks with Syrian officials on the Lebanese Cabinet crisis.
Aridi was unavailable for comment, but he told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television after his return to Beirut that Syria encouraged the government’s formation in Lebanon.
Hopes for the formation of the government rose Wednesday after an agreement was reached to end the row over the Interior Ministry portfolio, which was contested by Sleiman and Aoun. The nomination of Charbel as a consensus candidate to the Interior Ministry has been approved by all the parties, including Sleiman and Aoun, removing a major obstacle to the Cabinet’s formation.
The intensified efforts to break the Cabinet deadlock followed strong Syrian pressure on the March 8 parties to speed up the government’s formation.
Lebanon has been under a caretaker Cabinet since the collapse of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government on Jan. 12 in a long-simmering feud between Hariri and the March 8 alliance over the STL. Mikati, the Tripoli MP and telecom tycoon, nominated by the March 8 alliance, was appointed on Jan. 25 to form a new Cabinet.
Meanwhile, the United States reiterated that the international community would assess its relationship with the new government based on its makeup, policy statement and the actions it takes concerning Lebanon’s international obligations, including the STL, which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“The United States views that the international community will assess its relationship with any new government of Lebanon based on the make-up of the next cabinet, its Ministerial Statement and the actions it takes in regard to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Lebanon’s other international obligations. The U.S. hopes that the government formation process will be protected from outside influence,” U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly said in a statement after holding talks with Mikati Thursday.
“The U.S. continues its support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability, and prosperity, and calls on the next Lebanese government to provide stability and promote justice for the people of Lebanon by honoring its international agreements. A government that is truly representative of the interests of the people of Lebanon will continue to support and sustain the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” she added.
Connelly said that she discussed with Mikati the U.S. administration’s developing view on “the dramatic events that have occurred and continue to occur in the region.”
“Ambassador Connelly expressed the U.S. government’s view that the governments of the region ought to listen to their people, refrain from violence, and engage in political dialogue in order to insure that the legitimate changes and reforms they demand can begin to be implemented,” according to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy.
Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim religious leaders called for a quick formation of a government.
In a statement issued after their meeting at the Maronite patriarch’s seat in Bkirki, northeast of Beirut, the spiritual leaders said a Cabinet must be formed on “constitutional bases in order for it to be able to perform its role in this difficult stage through which the country and the Arab region are passing.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea questioned whether the government to be formed by Mikati would be able to take decisions.
“Syria and Hezbollah want the formation of a government according to their policies, while the president and the prime minister-designate want the formation of a government that is the closest to the Lebanese reality. This is a bone of contention,” Geagea said in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency.
Referring to intensified efforts to form the government, he said, “In case they managed to form the new government, how will its image be? Will it be able to take decisions so that it can endure?”
Geagea added that the current situation can be characterized by a wait-and-see situation amid the changes taking place in Arab countries as a result of popular uprisings.
Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra also said that if the government was formed, it would face a paralysis or a breakup from within.
Commenting on reports that Syria had urged the March 8 parties to accelerate the Cabinet’s formation, Zahra told the LBCI channel: “If it is true that there is a Syrian green light to speed up the [government] formation, this refutes the other side’s allegation that the Syrians are not interfering in the Cabinet issue.”
“The new government, if it is formed, will face either a paralysis or a breakup. The March 8 [groups] must have the conviction that they cannot rule without the other political team,” Zahra said. – With additional reporting by Hassan Lakkis