x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Battle for key ministries blocks Beirut deal

A two-hour meeting between rivals in an attempt to form a functioning government in Lebanon fails to reach an agreement.

BEIRUT // A meeting between key rivals in Lebanon's struggle to form a functioning government ended yesterday without an agreement on the disputes that have prevented the formation of a cabinet since elections in early June. The meeting between the prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, and the leader of the opposition's Christian bloc, Michel Aoun, lasted more than two hours, but failed to resolve a disagreement over control of two key ministries despite optimism after last week's successful summit between Syria and Saudi Arabia in Damascus.

With Saudi Arabia backing the incoming majority led by Mr Hariri and Syria's long-standing patronage of the Hizbollah-led opposition, the summit between Saudi King Abdullah and Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, ended a multi-year rift between the two Arab powers and many Lebanese hoped the meeting would nudge their Lebanese clients into an agreement on the new government. Mr Hariri refused to speak to journalists after the meeting at Mr Aoun's home outside Beirut, keeping with his practice on not giving interviews during the cabinet deliberation process.

Mr Aoun described the talks as useful, although he could not offer any details. "The atmosphere is very positive and talks will continue." The day before the meeting, Mr Aoun simultaneously denied that foreign interference was holding up the cabinet talks, while accusing Mr Hariri's coalition of this very same interference. "Internal political sides serving the interest of foreign players in Lebanon are obstructing government formation," Mr Aoun said.

Mr Hariri's March 14 alliance of Sunni, Druze and Christian parties delivered a parliamentary majority in the June 7 elections over the efforts of Mr Aoun, Hizbollah and a number of smaller groups, but both sides have seen little progress in agreeing on the first cabinet that can effectively manage the country since a Hizbollah-led walkout in 2006 crippled the country's political scene. After nearly two years without a functioning government, a sectarian clash between Mr Hariri's Sunni supporters and Hizbollah and its Shiite allies in May 2008, drove the country to the brink of civil war before a Qatari-backed plan installed a unity government to manage the country until June's elections.

But since those elections, however, Mr Hariri was weakened after a key Druze ally, Walid Jumblatt, defected to a more neutral position and a dispute with Mr Aoun over control of Lebanon's lucrative telecommunications ministry. Mr Hariri wants to name his own minister, whereas Mr Aoun appears to be demanding either the telecom or the finance ministry as part of his portfolio. According to officials and local media reports, the current negotiations continue to include a 15-10-5 formula, with 15 seats to the majority, 10 to the opposition and five to a bloc loyal to president to offer a blocking veto on major decisions to the opposition. The Hizbollah-led opposition has stated the veto is needed to protect the right of Hizbollah and other resistance groups to maintain weapons.

As-Safir newspaper quoted one official as saying that the telecommunications ministry is the final issue stopping progress on a cabinet, as has been the case for more than a month, and that efforts are underway to find a solution that "does not upset anybody". Sources within Mr Hariri's Future Movement, which is part of the March 14 grouping, have rejected giving up control of the finance ministry, which its loyalists have controlled for over 12 years amid Beirut's massive and expensive post-civil war rebuilding period.

Mr Aoun has repeatedly criticised the Hariri family's performance over the past five years, arguing that mismanagement and corruption have saddled Lebanon with the highest per capita national debt in the world, with little economic development to show for the investment. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae