“Gebran Bassil is directly responsible for obstructing the formation of the Cabinet.” Facing Gebran Bassil, the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati is no longer mincing his words — and is edging closer to the point of no return.
This is what the virulent war of statements in which Mikati and Bassil engaged Sunday evening makes clear. As a result, the Cabinet formation could be further delayed, while only 10 days separate Lebanon from the start of the constitutional deadline to elect a new president. This possibility would risk dragging the country into the unknown, amid a disagreement on whether the caretaker Cabinet has the powers to manage Lebanon in case of a presidential vacuum.
The latest round of the feud was triggered by the intro of an al-Jadeed television news bulletin on Sunday evening. According to the TV program, Bassil pushed President Aoun to reject a proposal that Mikati had made during their last meeting on Wednesday.
The same channel reported that Mikati was open to the possibility of replacing the ministers Aoun had opposed. After having accepted this solution, the president retracted under pressure from Bassil, according to al-Jadeed TV.
On the political scene
Contrary to al-Jadeed’s version of events, L’Orient-Le Jour learned that Mikati proposed to Aoun during their last one-on-one meeting a modification in the line-up of the caretaker team.
These changes would mean replacing caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam (close to Aoun) and caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine (close to Talal Arslan) — particularly since latter’s controversy-stirring recent visit to Syria, where he raised the thorny issue of refugee return.
Aoun opposed the replacements, a source told L’Orient-Le Jour, arguing that they would undermine the sectarian and political balance within the Cabinet.
According to L’Orient-Le Jour correspondent Hoda Chedid, another possible solution is being discussed behind the scenes. This solution would provide for the expansion of the caretaker Cabinet from 24 to 30 ministers by incorporating six ministers of state. The aim is to give the ministerial team a political character enabling it to face major deadlines like the presidential election. This is an option that could be favorable to Aoun, a source close to Baabda told L’Orient-Le Jour.
For his part, Bassil was quick to deny the story reported by al-Jadeed, and rejected the accusations that he was interfering in the Cabinet formation process.
“These media fabrications will not do their author, the prime minister-designate, any good,” a statement issued by the FPM media office read. The FPM statement blamed the Tripolitan billionaire for the delay in forming the new team. “But [his position] will change as soon as the actors supporting the prime minister and guiding his action change their position,” the statement added, hurling barbs at Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a major opponent of the Aounist camp. Berri had contributed, along with Hezbollah, to Mikati’s reappointment despite a Christian veto from the FPM and the Lebanese Forces.
According to information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour, Mikati’s initiative to visit Baabda last week after a weeks-long freeze came amid pressure from Berri. The parliament speaker is pushing for the future Cabinet to see the light of day before Aoun’s term expires on Oct. 31.
It is Berri’s way to block the possibility of Aoun staying in Baabda after the end of his six-year term, amid worries that Aoun could remain under the pretext that the caretaker Cabinet cannot exercise the powers of the president in case of a presidential vacuum.
This theory was raised several times by Aounist figures, including Bassil himself, in an interview several few weeks ago on Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV channel. However, “Michel Aoun will leave the presidential palace on Oct. 31,” a senior FPM official told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Mikati back in Baabda?
This new virulent exchange of accusations between the two camps will undoubtedly help “slowing down the efforts that are currently being made to revitalize the Cabinet formation process,” a figure close to Baabda told L’Orient-Le Jour.
However, the source did not rule out the possibility of seeing Mikati again in the presidential palace in the near future, “particularly since we are not involved in the dispute. It is a disagreement between Najib Mikati and Gebral Bassil,” he said, in a bid to clearly distinguish between the positions of Aoun and those of his son-in-law.
The FPM has expressed a similar sentiment. In a recent TV statement, MP Ghassan Atallah (FPM/Chouf), said that Aoun and Mikati will meet again “during this week” to carry on their discussion on the Cabinet formation.
“We do not want to make things difficult for the prime minister. But we want to see him fulfilling his duty,” said the Aounist official who requested anonymity. He stressed that there is no rupture between the FPM and Mikati. “We reproach him for lacking seriousness in forming the Cabinet and we expect him to be able to rectify it,” he added.
This article was originally published in French at L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Joelle El Khoury.
“Gebran Bassil is directly responsible for obstructing the formation of the Cabinet.” Facing Gebran Bassil, the Free Patriotic Movement’s leader and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati is no longer mincing his words — and is edging closer to the point of no return.This is what the virulent war of statements in which Mikati and Bassil engaged Sunday...