Lebanon President Blames PM-Elect For Foot-Dragging on New Cabinet

President Michel Aoun has implicitly accused Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri of deviating from unified criteria in the formation of a new government, in a development that threatens to further complicate an already stalled Cabinet formation process.

Aoun’s accusation reflected an escalation by him and his son-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Gebran Bassil, of their positions on the Cabinet formation process by insisting on naming most of the nine Christian ministers in Hariri’s proposed 18-member government of nonpartisan specialists to deliver urgent reforms deemed essential to unlocking promised international aid to the crises-ridden country.

The toughening of Aoun’s stance comes as Lebanon is facing multiple crises, including an economic meltdown and a crashing Lebanese pound that has lost more than 80 percent of its value since last year, putting half of the Lebanese population below the poverty line.

In addition to an alarming spike in coronavirus infections that prompted authorities to impose a two-week nationwide lockdown, Lebanon is also grappling with the grave consequences of the Aug. 4 deadly explosion that devastated Beirut Port, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands, left 300,000 people homeless and caused losses worth billions of dollars.

“Statehood, in its most basic components, needs an active and efficient government. Hasn’t the time come yet, under all the current pressing circumstances, to liberate the process of the formation of the government-to-be from polarizations and from hiding behind rescue initiatives to deviate from the unified rules and criteria that must be respected and implemented on everyone in order to straighten the formation and functioning of the executive branch?” Aoun said in a televised speech Saturday night on the eve of the 77th anniversary of Lebanon’s independence from France.

Aoun stressed that the next government would face the immediate task of enacting structural reforms, rebuilding Beirut and implementing the financial rescue plan.

“Especially that this government has ahead of it missions that are labeled as immediate, urgent and rescue-oriented, most notably launching the workshop of pressing structural reforms, rebuilding Beirut and healing its wounds, developing the financial recovery plan and embodying it in laws and implementing decrees,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from Hariri, who has imposed a shroud of secrecy and silence on the Cabinet formation process since he was designated to form a new government on Oct. 22.

But a Future Movement MP Sunday denied that Hariri had departed from the unified criteria spelled out in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War.

“When Prime Minister Saad Hariri says he wants to form a government under the conditions set by the international community and the French initiative to help Lebanon, this means a government made up of nonpartisan, honest and efficient specialists. Hariri has said he will not deviate an inch from the French initiative which is the only opportunity for Lebanon,” MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star.

“When Hariri says this, this means the criteria are clear and defined: a government of nonpartisan and efficient specialists. Anyone who does not want this kind of government and wants to return to the old approaches [in the Cabinet formation] that had brought the country to the current situation, must bear responsibility for what the country will be like if, God forbid, a new government is not formed,” Hajjar said.

Asked if Aoun’s remarks marked an escalation of his position on the Cabinet formation, he said: “The remarks are inaccurate and do not reflect the reality of the situation.”

Hariri, according to Future officials, is insisting on naming all ministers in agreement with the president.

In addition to rival parties’ struggle for public-services-related ministries, the problem of Christian representation is posing a major bone of contention between Aoun and Hariri.

Aoun and Bassil have also demanded that the rotation of the sectarian leadership of the four “sovereign ministries” be applied to all the parties. This was an indirect jab at Hariri who earlier said he agreed to assigning the Finance Ministry to the Shiite sect only for one time – a key demand of the two main Shiite groups, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.

In his speech, Aoun vowed not to back off from the battle against endemic corruption in the public administration, largely blamed for the economic crisis. He also pledged to revive a forensic audit of the Central Bank’s accounts, seen vital to combating corruption.

Aoun lamented that this year has been packed with all sorts of crises and hardships that have reflected adversely on the lives of all the Lebanese, whether on their livelihoods, their lifetime savings or the future of their children.

“Yes, our reality today is not promising … Today, our country is a prisoner of a system of political, financial and administrative corruption, covered by all kinds of legalized confessional, sectarian and social shields, to the extent that corruption has become a culture and a philosophy, having its own preachers, justifiers and defenders,” Aoun said.

He said “interest-driven roadblocks” had derailed the forensic audit of the Central Bank, which is a key condition for foreign donors to help Lebanon out of its financial woes.

“If we want statehood, it is inevitable to fight corruption because no powerful and active state can stand tall in light of corruption, and this begins by imposing the forensic financial audit,” Aoun said.

Caretaker finance Minister Ghazi Wazni announced Friday that the restructuring consultancy Alvarez & Marsal had pulled out of the audit because the Central Bank had not provided all the information and documents required to carry out the task, citing a banking secrecy law.

“I will not pull out or part with my battle against the endemic corruption in our institutions,” Aoun said. “I will not back off in the issue of forensic financial audit, no matter what the obstacles may be, and I will take the necessary measures to re-launch its financial track.”

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