“The government could see the light of day next week,” Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Kassem said over the weekend.
Could this expression of optimism be the prelude to cabinet formation?
The answer depends largely on the outcome of a meeting expected to be held Sept. 27 between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati.
Mikati already promised that, upon his return from a trip to London and New York, he would do everything he can to unblock the cabinet-formation process, even if this meant “sleeping in Baabda.”
But caution remains the order of the day in view of the contradictory information circulating, particularly given the different scenarios for shuffling the caretaker cabinet.
Ali Darwish, a former Tripoli MP close to Mikati, told L’Orient-Le Jour that the premier is expected to meet Aoun in Baabda Palace Sept. 27.
A source close to the Grand Serail, the prime minister’s office, did not confirm this claim.
“We are waiting for the outcome of the ongoing contacts,” the source said.
This suggests that the anticipated meeting between the two officials is unlikely to end in the birth of a new cabinet.
But it will be an opportunity for Mikati — backed by the diplomatic support he received in New York, illustrated by the joint France, U.S., Saudi communique published Wednesday evening — to negotiate the terms of a cabinet reshuffle.
Both sides are under strong pressure from Hezbollah and from Mikati’s ally, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, to speed up the process.
The challenge is to avoid having a presidential vacuum after the of Aoun’s term ends Oct. 31.
In recent weeks, the presidential camp has been blowing hot and cold as to what will happen after Oct. 31. If Parliament fails to elect a successor by then, Aoun has said he would not hand over power to a caretaker cabinet.
Nasrallah throwing his weight behind cabinet formation
In a bid to spare the country an untimely constitutional controversy, Hezbollah has galvanized efforts to secure cabinet formation as soon as possible.
A political source who is closely following the issue told L’Orient-Le Jour that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has recently contacted Aoun personally to urge him to facilitate Mikati’s task.
In fact, it was under pressure from Hezbollah that Aoun backtracked on his condition to expand the cabinet from 24 to 30 ministers.
“Discussions between Aoun and Mikati should pick up where they left off, namely reshuffling a cabinet of 24 ministers,” a source close to the presidential palace told L’Orient-Le Jour.
The anonymous source is referring to scenarios currently being discussed behind the scenes — mainly focused on replacing the caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine (a Druze close to Lebanese Democratic Party leader Talal Arslan) with a minister of the same faith who would not provoke Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt.
Joumblatt, however, appears to be less interested in cabinet formation, as he’s said the priority is electing a president in accordance with the constitution.
“The minister of displaced persons will surely be the subject of a reshuffle,” a former minister close to Mikati told L’Orient-Le Jour.
“We’ll see about the rest,” the anonymous source added, referring to speculation about a possible replacement for Minister of State for Administrative Development Najla Riachi (Greek-Catholic, part of Aoun’s party) and Economy Minister Amin Salam (Sunni, close to the president).
Saade Chami in the cross hairs?
There have been discussions about a probable replacement of Finance Minister Youssef Khalil (Shiite) and Deputy Prime Minister Saade Chami (Greek Orthodox) but nothing has been decided yet.
As is customary in Lebanon, any political change must respect the sectarian balance.
Last week’s news about the possible dismissal of Khalil, who is close to Berri, generated considerable commentary, especially as to the reasons why the speaker would take such a decision.
Sources from Ain al-Tineh, Berri’s residence, maintain that Khalil himself decided to step down.
Meanwhile, a political source claiming to be knowledgeable of cabinet formation discussions told L’Orient-Le Jour that the presidential camp is calling for Chami’s removal.
A former employee of the International Monetary Fund, Chami is leading Beirut’s negotiations with the financial institution. He could be replaced by businessman Wadih Absi.
“There is no question of replacing the deputy prime minister,” a source close to Mikati told L’Orient-Le Jour, arguing that this would jeopardize negotiations with the IMF.
For his part, the source close to Baabda said, “We have not advocated such a move.”
Aoun was accused recently of wanting Chami gone, because the deputy prime minister rejected his request to have two of his advisers on the committee in talks with the IMF. The committee was formed at the end of September 2021. with the IMF that was formed at the end of September 2021.
This story was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub