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Lebanon makes progress in forming cabinet after months of impasse

Since the collapse of Saad Hariri's cabinet on January 12, Lebanon has been without a government, However, a flurry of meetings have taken place this week in an effort to cobble together the next ministerial line-up.

BEIRUT // Politicians appear to be making progress forming a new cabinet in Lebanon, four months after the previous one collapsed.

A flurry of meetings have taken place this week in an effort to cobble together the next ministerial line-up. These talks include negotiations between the parties that form the March 8 coalition, Michel Sleiman, the Lebanese president, and prime minister-designate Nejib Miqati.

Since the collapse of Saad Hariri's cabinet on January 12, Lebanon has been without a government. Mr Miqati was named as the next prime minister on January 25, with the backing of the Hizbollah-led March 8 alliance.

While there has been no official word from Mr Miqati, a source close to the billionaire businessman and MP for Tripoli, told AFP that "progress" had been made on the cabinet formation, although nothing had been finalised.

"We cannot say when this government will see the light," the official said on condition of anonymity.

One of the main obstacles has been who will next head the ministry of interior. The key security portfolio was reportedly being contested by Mr Sleiman and Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, who wanted to nominate the candidate.

Local media reported yesterday that a consensus candidate had now been named. The English-language Daily Star quoted retired police official Brigadier General Marwan Charbel as saying that he had been "verbally informed" of the position.

Some observers believe that agreement on the next minister of interior is a sign that the four-month political impasse may be nearing an end.

"They appear to have reached a compromise on the minister of interior," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "So if that's the case, I believe they'll go ahead and the cabinet could be named in the next two to three days."

There have also been reports that Syria has made it clear that it would like to see the cabinet formed sooner rather than later. Syria remains a major player in Lebanese politics even after it withdrew its troops from the country in 2005 after 29 years.

This week Hizbollah and Amal, another Shiite movement and member of the March 8 coalition, sent envoys to Syria for talks that reportedly focused on the cabinet formation. Although Damascus has its own domestic problems, Walid Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, was in contact with March 8 officials this week urging the formation of the government, the Daily Star reported.

"When the go-ahead came from Syria, it paved the way for the cabinet to be named," said Prof Khashan.

Nasri Sayegh, deputy editor of the Lebanese newspaper As Safir, said the interior ministry was just one of the portfolios that had been delaying a final deal on the government.

"What about the ministry of justice?" he said. "This is one of the big issues, especially in relation to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon."

Mr Hariri's government collapsed in January following months of disputes over the UN-backed investigation into the assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri. Mr Hariri and the March 14 coalition support the probe into the bombing in 2005 that killed the former prime minister and 22 others. Cabinet members allied with the March 8 coalition resigned in January in protest over what they have described as a politicised investigation.

A national unity government was then ruled out in late February after members of the March 14 coalition announced they would boycott the next government.

Further complicating the political impasse has been the fact that there is no defined period in which the prime minister has to form a cabinet. This has raised fears that the process could be delayed for many months.

A stalled cabinet formation is nothing new to Lebanon. Mr Hariri named his cabinet in November 2009, five months after parliamentary elections.

Still, Prof Khashan said that the lack of government for the last four months has had a major impact on Lebanon.

"We're going to witness an energy and fuel crisis and the economy has come to a standstill," he said."Lebanon cannot wait much longer."

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Press