x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hizbollah given deadline to join Lebanon’s new government

Prime minister-designate Tamim Salam threatens to form cabinet without powerful Shiite group after dispute over post of energy minister.

BEIRUT // Lebanon’s prime minister-designate threatened to form a new government without Hizbollah soon unless the group’s allies agree to his proposed cabinet.

Lebanon has been without a government since March last year. Najib Mikati, the prime minister, resigned after intense political squabbles, exacerbated by sectarian divisions over the civil war in Syria, made it nearly impossible to legislate.

Mr Mikati has been running a caretaker cabinet with minimal powers since then.

Tamim Salam, the prime minister-designate, has seized recent momentum in political negotiations to try to form a government.

“Prime minister Salam told us he cannot wait for them much longer. Another two or three days and, after that, he said he will form a government without them,” said a high-level official who was present at talks yesterday between Mr Salam and the Hizbollah-dominated March 8 political bloc.

The official said the main stumbling block was the insistence of one of Hizbollah’s allies, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, on letting the former energy minister, Gebran Bassil, retain his post in the future government.

Keeping Mr Bassil on conflicts with an earlier deal that requires that cabinet roles be rotated among different sects in each new government, so none comes to dominate any ministry.

Lebanon, still struggling to recover from its own civil war between 1975 and 1990, has faced sporadic violence and political disputes from the conflict in Syria, whose sectarian divisions mirror Lebanon’s own.

Hizbollah, a militant and political Shiite movement, is one of the most powerful groups in Lebanon.

It has sent its fighters to Syria to support president Bashar Al Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The Sunni Future party, which dominates the rival March 14 political bloc, supports the largely Sunni opposition struggling to topple Mr Al Assad.

The two blocs had been at odds over the distribution of posts in a new government, but recently both sides appeared to soften their positions and talks on forming a new cabinet were revived in December.

* Reuters