Lebanon News

Deal still elusive on security, Army appointments

Taymour Jumblatt receives Change and Reform MPs in Clemenceau, Thursday, May 21, 2015. (The Daily Star/HO)

BEIRUT: A meeting between Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun on the divisive issue of security appointments concluded without a breakthrough, sources close to the FPM said Thursday.

Speaking to The Daily Star, sources said Machnouk informed Aoun that he would put forward the names of three officers for the position of Internal Security Forces chief at next Thursday’s Cabinet session.

One of the three names is reportedly Col. Samir Chehade, the head of the ISF branch in south Lebanon.

If the Cabinet is unable to reach a consensus on any of the three, Machnouk proposed extending the term of Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Basbous, the current ISF chief, for six months. Basbous is currently scheduled to retire on June 5.

Sources said Aoun reiterated his opposition to the extension and proposed appointing the highest ranking officer below Basbous as acting ISF chief if the post cannot be filled.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, held at Aoun’s Rabieh residence, Machnouk said the talks tackled all of the security appointments.

“We discussed all the [potential] security appointments: the appointment of an Army commander, [appointments to] the Military Council and the Internal Security Forces Command Council, along with other issues related to the [ISF] Information Branch.”

The minister said that he would not go into detail regarding the meeting. “I have always counted on the responsibility, seriousness and patriotism of General Aoun. I hope that it will continue this way because it will result in [positive] gains for the country.”

The current impasse on the issue of appointments has stoked fears that the standoff could bring down the government.

Machnouk said “national responsibility” required the preservation of the government, adding that the talks were ongoing.

Aoun has hinted that the government could be paralyzed if the terms of top security officials are extended, saying to do so would violate the National Defense Law.

The dispute threatens to result in vacancies at the top of the ISF and the Army, at a time when the country faces the threats of jihadi militants along on the northeastern border.

Speaker Nabih Berri, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, and the leadership of the Future Movement have all voiced support for extending the terms of Basbous and Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi if the government fails to agree on their successors, contending that important posts must not be left empty.

Kahwagi’s term is set to expire on Sept. 23.

Brig. Elias Saade, the chief of police, retires Friday. Basbous held a ceremony for Saade Thursday, praising his “constructive” efforts and service.

With the government unable to appoint a successor, Brig. Mahmoud Annan will now serve as acting chief.

MPs from Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc also held a series of meetings with members of other blocs in order to explain his initiative to break the presidential deadlock.

A delegation met Taymour Jumblatt, the son of the PSP leader, in the presence of Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb, and MPs Henry Helou and Alaeddine Tirro, all from Jumblatt’s Democratic Gathering bloc.

Aoun has proposed four options to solve the presidential crisis.

The first would have the people elect the president directly over two rounds of voting, one by Christians, the next by all Lebanese.

The second would be to hold a popular referendum to see which of the presidential candidates enjoys the most support.

The winner would then be elected president by Parliament.

A third option would have Parliament hold an election in which one or two of the most popular Maronite MPs stand as candidates.

A last alternative would be the election of a new Parliament based on a new, more representative, electoral law. That Parliament would then choose the president.

The first three options would require a Constitutional amendment.

After the meeting, MP Alain Aoun, of Aoun’s bloc, said that the talks were “frank,” but that no agreement had been reached regarding the characteristics of a presidential candidate.

“As for the presidential election, the Democratic Gathering still has its candidate,” Aoun said.

“While we respect him, we have frankly stated our opinion: A presidential candidate should be representative [of Christians] – this is the essence of our initiative.”

“All blocs participate in electing a president, but the elected president should have characteristics that reflect the Christian will,” Aoun said.

Jumblatt’s bloc has nominated Helou for presidency, but Aoun’s party has argued that he is not representative, as he does not come from one of the country’s powerful Christian political parties.

“The issue requires more discussion because we have not reached an agreement yet,” Aoun said.

But he said that the PSP has demonstrated flexibility on the issue of appointments.

“They support a consensus [within the Cabinet] and their stance is helpful [to achieve this goal]. But of course they have a specific stance if an agreement is not reached.”

Chehayeb said that Helou was still his bloc’s candidate, and would remain so until “a certain consensus is reached [on a candidate] at a certain time.”

He expressed his opposition to amending the country’s Constitution, approved at the time of the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon’s Civil War.

“We adhere to the Taif Accord, and the problem is not in the Constitution but in its implementation,” Chehayeb said.

He said his group insists that an agreement must be reached on the security appointments. “Let the one possessing the required qualifications reach the post he wants.”

“For the Lebanese state, the Lebanese Army is a red line. Under the current political circumstances, we should all rally behind the Army to ensure the solidity of the security institutions.”

Change and Reform bloc delegations also visited former Minister Mohammad Safadi, members of the Tashnag Party, and MP Asaad Hardan, the head of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 22, 2015, on page 2.

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