Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati seemed to emerge victorious from the cabinet session on Wednesday. He only needed 18 ministers to achieve the goals he had set several weeks ago, and in the process he scored a few points in the ongoing tug-of-war with Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil.
Mikati was able to override the Christian veto to hold a cabinet session, which was made possible with a green light from Hezbollah, whose two affiliated ministers (public works and agriculture) were at the meeting at the Grand Serail.
This position on the part of Hezbollah has further undermined the 2006 Mar Mikhael agreement with the FPM, which, by Bassil’s admission, is now hanging by a thread.
This is particularly true even if for Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah the deal remains essential in order not to lose valuable Christian support amid a presidential battle in full swing.
Moreover, two ministers close to the FPM took part in yesterday’s cabinet session, dealing a serious blow to the unity of a camp already weakened since the end of former President Michel Aoun’s mandate in October, and almost isolated in view of its disagreements with all the stakeholders, including Hezbollah, its only ally.
During the session, Mikati, known for his ability to smooth things over, did not need to resort to any provocation.
To avoid a withdrawal of the Hezbollah ministers, which could have torpedoed the session, he made sure to adjourn the session just after the debate on the urgent issue of electricity.
Mikati made sure not to overstretch Hezbollah’s conditional support of him, preferring to take advantage of it once again to hold a new session scheduled for two weeks from now, as he announced after the end of yesterday’s session.
As expected, the cabinet approved an advance from the Treasury ($62 million) to finance the purchase of fuel for Electricité du Liban, and another ($54 million) for the maintenance of the Zahrani (South Lebanon) and Deir Ammar (North Lebanon) power plants.
Two other advances were approved subject to ex-post validation by an ad hoc ministerial committee, as announced by Mikati after the session.
These decisions were taken in the absence of Energy Minister Walid Fayad, who is affiliated with the FPM, although he is primarily concerned with the electricity issue.
Fayad preferred to comply with the FPM decision to boycott the cabinet sessions in the absence of a head of state — a move that was anticipated.
The surprise, however, was the attendance of Economy Minister Amin Salam and his colleague Tourism Minister Walid Nassar, both of whom are aligned with the FPM.
“We were not appointed ministers to stay at home,” Salam said just before the beginning of the session that was supposed to discuss financing wheat imports.
But Mikati adjourned the meeting “just after the debate on electricity, which lasted more than three hours,” according to caretaker Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada (close to the Amal Movement), who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour.
As for Nassar, he notified Bassil of his willingness to take part in the session, despite the FPM’s decision to boycott, according to a ministerial source.
It was a move that “did not please” Bassil, according to the same source.
“My presence today is not intended to please anyone or to challenge anyone, but to express my official position regarding the session and the decrees that will be issued,” Nassar said to the press after the cabinet session.
He also expressed “opposition to the decrees, issued in the absence of a head of state, being signed by the ministers concerned only (as the prime minister wants), while Article 62 of the constitution transfers the prerogatives of the president to the cabinet as a whole.”
With this, Nassar seemed to reiterate the FPM position, which sees government sessions as an encroachment on the president’s powers.
On this point, the FPM and Bkirki share the same position.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Maronite bishops attacked Mikati and his method of running the country without a president.
“According to the law, the head of government does not have the right to convene a cabinet session without the approval of the ministers, nor does he have the right to issue decrees without the signature of all the ministers,” the statement read, echoing the stance of Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai who made similar remarks a few weeks ago.
Mikati tried to calm such apprehensions, at the beginning of Wednesday’s sessions as well as in his statements to the press.
“The caretaker cabinet does not wish to take the place of the head of state,” the Tripolitan billionaire said at the opening of the session. “I do not want to drown in unnecessary polemics …, nor respond to sectarian comments that give rise to apprehensions existing only in the minds of some.”
“The cabinet session [on Wednesday] is not intended to deepen the divisions in Lebanese politics,” Mikati said as he left the meeting, adding that the next session will be dedicated to discussing urgent issues, including the education sector and wheat purchase among other items.
The FPM stalls
Mikati’s scheduling of [Wednesday’s] cabinet session had already ushered in a new round of confrontation in his arm wrestling against the FPM. The premier’s position has also further worsened the situation between Bassil’s party and Hezbollah, whose relations — at their lowest since February 2006 — have taken another blow with Bassil’s half-hearted threat to put an end to the Mar Mikhael agreement.
“The cabinet session [on Wednesday] could lead us to what goes beyond the damage to balances and agreements,” Bassil said in a [Jan.17] video posted on social networks.
A few hours later, Nasrallah responded in a speech, emphasizing that the party’s ministers would only discuss the electricity issue and would leave if other subjects were broached. Nasrallah denied that the party’s participation constitutes a “challenge.”
In this tense context, what will the FPM’s next move be?
“We are not yet at the death of the Mar Mikhael agreement,” a former FPM MP told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, ruling out the possibility of the FPM voting for a specific candidate in the parliamentary session scheduled for Thursday morning in a bid to elect a president.
The party MPs also want to break away from Hezbollah’s blank vote strategy.
“We are waiting for [a broader] agreement [on the name of the new president]. But we do not want to waste [names of] candidates,” the former MP said.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translations by Sahar Ghoussoub.