x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lebanese parties take short break from feuding

The calm is unlikely to last long as a new round of negotiations over the formation of a government is set to begin on Thursday.

BEIRUT // While the Eid holiday has seen political tensions in Lebanon at their lowest levels since the June general elections, as all parties committed to a "media truce" and refrained from issuing controversial statements on the formation of a new government, the calm is unlikely to last long. THe prime minister-designate Saad Hariri will start a new round of negotiations on Thursday to try to form a government in the face of a seemingly intractable stalemate over the formation of a cabinet and ministerial appointments that has left the country rudderless for more than three months. The Future Movement leader's support in parliament has waned. Last June, when he was first named prime minister-designate, Mr Hariri won support from 86 parliamentarians in the 128-seat body. He had resigned earlier this month after unsuccessful negotiations with Michel Aoun, the leader of the Hizbollah-aligned Free Patriotic Movement, over the control of key ministries, but was reappointed last week. This time around, just 73 legislators voted for him. A Lebanese official who has direct knowledge of the negotiations said Mr Hariri is now pursuing a "technocrat" government rather than one of "national unity", a cabinet formula proposed in the Doha Agreement of May 2008, which allocates 15 seats to the majority, five to the president as a neutral party and 10 to the minority, who would have  a "veto third" over any cabinet decision. A technocrat administration would comprise ministers who would be chosen by Mr Hariri for their expertise in their respective fields rather than their political profile, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The logic of this is that the cabinet, while remaining faithful to the constitutional stipulation that cabinet seats be divided equally between Christians and Muslims, will not be made up of high-profile politicians, whose inclusion is stipulated in the Doha Agreement and whose demands and political posturing could hold up the functioning of government. Some politicians believe the technocrat formula will probably be rejected by opposition politicians who will want more of a say in the selection of ministers.   But MP Okab Sakr, a member of the Lebanon First bloc, led by Mr Hariri, said the opposition's rejection of the previous cabinet selection left Mr Hariri with little choice but to seek another solution. "The others [ the parliamentary minority] asked for the 15-10-5 formula and they went back and rejected it, hence rejecting the possibility of forming a national unity government," Mr Sakr said, referring to the formula laid out by the Doha agreement, which ended fighting in Lebanon after an 18-month political crisis between supporters of Mr Hariri's party and the Hizbollah-led opposition. The primary political players in Lebanon, mainly the president, the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, and Mr Hariri's ally Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, insist on having a 15-10-5 national unity government. President Suleiman has said he will not sign any government decree other than one based on this formula. Mr Hariri needs the co-operation of both Mr Berri, who can deliver the opposition, and Mr Jumblatt, who holds 11 seats in Mr Hariri's 71-member bloc, the March 14 Alliance, for any proposed cabinet to succeed, but in last week's vote to reappoint Mr Hariri, Mr Berri withdrew his individual support, for the prime minister-designate. MP Ghazi Youssef, a member of Mr Hariri's March 14 Alliance, accused Mr Berri of holding up cabinet formation by joining "the obstruction game". However, MP Ali Hassan Khalil from Mr Berri's Development and Liberation bloc said his party would "co-operate with the PM-designate and the Lebanese president on the basis of a national unity government based on the 15-10-5 formula". Meanwhile, Mr Aoun continues to insist on having five portfolios in any new government, including one sovereign portfolio  and the ministry of communications for his son-in-law, Jibran Basil. The inability to agree on the formation of the cabinet has led to a vacuum in the country's executive authority and it now faces the threat of a return to the sectarian violence that paralysed the country from 2006 until 2008. More than 150 people were killed in a series of sectarian clashes that culminated with Hizbollah's violent takeover and temporary occupation of West Beirut in May 2008. A minister involved in the negotiations who is close to the March 14 Alliance, said Mr Hariri's talk of a technocrat government was unrealistic and merely a show of strength to put pressure on the opposition, thereby giving him more leverage when he is selecting a government according to the 15-10-5 formula. "A technocrat government is not an option and Hariri knows it," the minister added on condition of anonymity. mzeidan@thenational.ae