Lebanon’s president pitted against parliament speaker over cabinet formation

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri now has an ally against President Michel Aoun in Parliament Speaker Nebih Berri

Thursday 17/06/2021
A file picture shows designated Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri meeting with Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri. (Twitter)
A file picture shows designated Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri meeting with Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri. (Twitter)

BEIRUT- The Lebanese parliament’s speaker Nabih Berri has taken a clear position with President Michel Aoun and called on him to stick to the constitution over the  formation of a government headed by Saad Hariri.

On Wednesday, Berri was keen to remind the president that parliament was behind the  appointment of Hariri to form the government and in those circumstances, Aoun should not put obstacles in the way of the prime minister-designate.

Lebanese political sources believe that the attitude of the Shia parliamentary speaker reflects clear annoyance with Michel Aoun’s actions and indicates that the relationship between the president and the speaker has entered a stage of no-holds-barred confrontation. This means a complete disconnect between them.

The sources indicated that Berri objects to Michel Aoun’s insistence on obtaining the blocking third in the government by naming two additional Christian ministers linked to him in the cabinet.

They say that Saad Hariri, who had threatened to turn down the opportunity  to form the cabinet, now has a strong ally who supports his position as he continues the showdown with the president and his son-in-law Gibran Bassil . The sources believe that Hariri plans shortly to present a new line-up of 24 ministers in consultation with Berri.

The open confrontation between the Maronite president and the Shia parliamentary speaker has never reached this intensity before, a development that has been underlined by Berri’s statements.

The newly-added pressure by the speaker of the House of Representatives came hours after a statement from the presidency in which Aoun lamented Berri’s proposals to form a new government without a blocking third and opined that “the artificial momentum that some are contriving regarding the cabinet has no future.”

The presidency also said, “We have seen from time to time statements and positions from different parties (which it did not specify) that interfere with the cabinet formation process, ignoring, intentionally or by omission, the mechanism that, according to the constitution, must be used to form the government.”

It pointed out that the constitutional mechanism is found “in Article 53, paragraphs 2, 3, 4 and 5 and is summarised by the necessity of an agreement between the president of the republic and the prime minister-designate who are exclusively concerned with the process of formation (of the government) and the issuance of decrees.”

Berri held Aoun responsible for the continued suffering of the people as a result of his rejection of Hariri’s  cabinet nominations. He added that the president had no right to block the prime minister-designate.

In the statement that Berri put out he said, “The decision to task a prime minister resides outside the will of the president of the republic, as it stems from the decision of the parliament’s representatives, that is, the legislative authority. The one who conducts parliamentary consultations to form the government is the prime minister-designate (Hariri) according to Article 64 of the Constitution.”

Designated Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, meets with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri at the presidential palace in Baabda. (AFP)
Designated Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, meets with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri at the presidential palace in Baabda. (AFP)

Berri stressed that Aoun has the right, at Hariri’s request, to try to help him in any initiative he might produce, especially since the president, who has the authority to sign off the new cabinet, in agreement with the prime minister, had expressed his support for his initiative.

At the beginning of this month, Berri launched a plan based on the appointment of 24 specialists, without a blocking third for anyone, to solve the stand-off over the naming of a new cabinet which has now endured for seven months.

The speaker said that Aoun was satisfied as long as the number of ministers increased to 24 (instead of 18 according to a previous proposal by Hariri).

He noted that “there was a solution to the issue of the interior ministry (in reference to a media reports that Aoun was insisting on appointing one of his close associates to the interior portfolio), until the president insisted on eight ministers (from his own Free Patriotic Movement/Christian party) plus two more whom he would name.”

Berri pointed out that, “the president of the republic does not have a constitutional right even to a single minister. He does not participate in voting, so how can he indirectly wield votes?”

He blamed the president for “the disruption of everything in the country and the suffering of the people” as a result of his rejection of his initiative “which was approved by the East and West,” noting that his scheme “is ongoing” despite everything.

Berri had recently succeeded in avoiding a row between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Future Movement because of Aoun’s letter to the parliament, through which the president tried to paint Hariri into a corner and push him to apologise for not being able to form the cabinet.

This success motivated Berri to revive his own cabinet formation scheme “without a blocking third, but the Aoun-Bassil duo does not seem ready to make any concessions under any circumstances, including foreign pressures or the intervention of friends.

The dispute between Aoun and Hariri centres around the naming Christian ministers in the government, according to observers.

Hariri says that the president is trying to obtain a “blocking third” for his own camp which includes in particular the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. Aoun denies the accusation.

In a bid to contain the dispute between Aoun and Hariri, Bassil said, “We are for the rapid formation of the government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. We are committed to this option because of the constitution and we are hoping for a quick initiative to take the necessary steps, because the most important issue is reforms.”

The head of the Free Patriotic Movement added in a message on his Twitter account, “We want a government that implements reforms and until that happens, which is a necessary and urgent obligation, the parliament can do a lot by passing many laws to solve many of the Lebanese problems.”

The faltering formation of the government deepens the crisis in the country which has been worsening for more than a year. This crisis, the worst since the end of the civil war in 1990, has led to a record decline in the value of the national currency against the dollar, the collapse of the purchasing power for most citizens and a spike in poverty rates.

Many believe that the political elite in Lebanon no longer enjoys the luxury of choice and that an agreement to form a government has become imperative in order to avoid a looming explosion with the intensification of economic challenges and the depletion sources of support.