After turning a parliamentary meeting sour on Tuesday afternoon, the issue of the constitutionality of caretaker cabinet meetings taking place during the presidential vacuum, given that the cabinet is considered resigned, also provoked a sharp exchange of comments between the office of caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, and the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, later in the evening.
The parliamentary committees on Tuesday met to study several bills and proposals, including the amendment of the text governing the work of the National Social Security Fund, the rehabilitation of natural reserves and the cooperation scheme with Iraq for the import of fuel oil for power plants.
The last agenda item caused controversy among MPs, with the bill being transferred to Parliament by the caretaker government, following a controversial cabinet meeting.
The Free Patriotic Movement, founded by former President Michel Aoun, and other Christian parties are opposed to such cabinet meetings, arguing that Mikati (a Sunni Muslim) intends — by convening his cabinet — to arrogate to himself the prerogatives of the head of state (traditionally a Maronite Christian) during the current presidential vacuum.
"Everyone knows that the session was adjourned because of an extended debate on the various items on the agenda, including the issue of bills transferred by the cabinet to Parliament," Deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab said after the meeting.
Bou Saab — as Parliament's No. 2 — is responsible for chairing the joint committee meetings.
"It is clear that the political dispute over the constitutionality and legality of cabinet meetings invited itself into Parliament," he lamented, saying that the only way to resolve this issue is to elect a new president.
Lebanon is without a head of state since the end of the mandate of Michel Aoun, on Oct. 31, 2022.
Meanwhile, Mikati's cabinet is only in caretaker capacity since the legislative elections of last May.
In this context, Parliament had stated on Nov. 3, 2022, that the cabinet could meet to deal with urgent matters.
A concept that is stirring controversy, given that the caretaker prime minister has already convened his cabinet four times.
"The government must meet to expedite the current affairs concerning the people, with all due respect for the views of everyone," added Bou Saab, who is an MP of FPM's parliamentary group but is not affiliated to the party.
The FPM MPs present at the meeting withdrew before the end of the session to mark their disagreement with the project transferred from the cabinet.
In an interview with local TV channel Al Jadeed, FPM MP Simon Abi Ramia said: "We [the Aounist MPs] withdrew from the meeting because of the decree on fuel oil, which was on the agenda but was signed by only five or six ministers."
"Elias Bou Saab tried in vain to remove this decree from the agenda so that the debate could continue in committees on other issues," he said, claiming that the position of the FPM is supported by MPs from the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb party, the two other main Christian parties, as well as other independents like Michel Moawad, who also withdrew from the session.
Reacting to what happened in Parliament, FPM head Gebran Bassil said that "a decree that violates the constitution, since it does not bear the signature of all the ministers, was sent to the joint committees, hence our refusal to examine it before it is rectified."
The FPM asks that all decrees are signed by all 23 cabinet ministers.
Bassil added, "The absence of a president does not justify this lightness of approach" of Mikati. He went on to call for a dialogue to unblock the presidential election and ensure the proper functioning of state institutions.
A criticism to which Najib Mikati's press office was quick to respond, issuing a statement in the early evening, saying, "What Gebran Bassil says about the signing of the decrees is a point view that violates the law and the text of the Constitution, which is clear," the statement reads.
It adds that amendments to decrees only require the signature of the ministers concerned and that of the prime minister. "Regarding Bassil's repeated accusations against Mikati, according to which he tries to arrogate to himself presidential prerogatives, we call on him and his party to perform their duty of electing a new president instead of obstructing" the election, the statement adds.