Talks surrounding the cabinet’s formation by Prime Minister–designate Najib Mikati seem to have gotten off to a bad start. Mikati appears to be facing the first challenge in his government formation mission.
One of the main obstacles appears to be whom to name as interior minister — a delicate matter, especially with the legislative elections slated for May 2022 approaching.
According to our sister publication, L’Orient-Le Jour, during a meeting with Mikati in Baabda, President Michel Aoun got the ball rolling when he raised the issue. Aoun said that Christians — who have the largest parliamentary bloc, the Strong Lebanon bloc — should take the Interior Ministry.
Mikati reportedly replied that this was something he could not deliver, arguing that the Finance Ministry, which is also a sovereign portfolio, would remain in the hands of Shiites and that the principle of rotation of sovereign portfolios would not be applied. Christians may therefore keep the foreign affairs and defense ministries.
The sovereign ministries include the interior, foreign, finance, and fefense ministries, which are usually distributed among the four largest sects in government and come with significant executive powers.
Meanwhile, the Free Patriotic Movement continues to deny media reports it wants ministers in the next government, staving off accusations that it is seeking to interfere in the cabinet formation process.
The party’s media department published a statement on Wednesday denying media reports that during a dinner meeting with Mikati on Saturday, the FPM’s head, Gebran Bassil, requested the Interior Ministry and a so-called blocking third veto power in the government.
Bassil’s clarifications, however, did not appear to calm the apprehensions of the premier-designate’s supporters.
“If Saad Hariri had agreed to give the Interior Ministry to the president and his camp, he could have formed a government, but he didn’t,” says Mustafa Alloush, the vice president of the Future Movement, led by Hariri, whose relations with the president’s camp are strained.
“Najib Mikati is also denying the president this request. This means the cabinet will not be formed anytime soon, probably not before the end of Aoun’s term,” Alloush added.
On July 28, Mikati visited the Presidential Palace for the second time in 24 hours to meet Aoun.
According to sources who spoke with L’Orient-Le Jour, the premier-designate handed Aoun a skeletal draft for a cabinet that would be made up of 24 ministers.
The sources said that at this stage the Interior Ministry appears to be the main obstacle in the formation, but the distribution of all the other portfolios is also currently at the center of talks.
According to the sources, Mikati said he presented his proposal about the cabinet makeup to Aoun and would take the president’s comments into account, and that the country would have a government soon.
The fact remains that the government negotiations could drag on for a long time before a cabinet sees the light of day, especially because all parties appear to be sticking to their guns when it comes to the government formation.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement appears adamant on keeping the Finance Ministry.
While sources close to Berri did not explicitly express this will, Hezbollah is in favor of such a maneuver, according to a source close to the party.
“Nothing prevents us from having the Finance Ministry. It was not Berri’s requests that had prevented the formation of Saad Hariri’s government,” a source close to the Parliament’s head says.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.