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French Version

Will they or won't they? Lebanese await word on long-overdue cabinet

Geagea dismisses Aoun's demands as 'irrational'

Sources close to President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora indicated Tuesday that Lebanon would have a new unity cabinet within 48 hours, but the struggle over portfolios showed no sign of abating. MP Michel Aoun, leader of the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, told The Daily Star that the formation of the new cabinet was being blocked by outsiders and not local parties.

Aoun said none of the government scenarios being circulated in the media have actually reached him.

Siniora was reported to have circulated some fresh ideas over the distribution of portfolios in the new government as Sleiman continued his own efforts to facilitate the process.

Local daily An-Nahar quoted what it said were "well-informed" sources as saying that Siniora had offered Aoun a "compromise package" in which the retired general would choose between getting one of two key portfolios; telecommunications and public works. Under this formula, Aoun would tip a candidate for one of the two portfolios and get the privilege of approving or rejecting, but not choosing, the candidate who would get the other portfolio.

Aoun and Siniora were reportedly close to a deal on the new cabinet late last week, but the agreement stumbled over last-minute differences.

Source close to the negotiations said the package included Aoun being offered the post of deputy premier, the Telecommunications Ministry, and three other portfolios.

But Aoun turned down the offer and insisted that the Public Works Ministry should be included in the package.

Meanwhile, news reports on Tuesday said that Sleiman had asked Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh and Speaker Nabih Berri to weigh in to bridge the gap between Aoun and Siniora.

The reports said one of Berri's closest confidantes, MP Ali Hassan Khalil, recently proposed to the president giving Aoun three instead of four portfolios. The three portfolios are telecommunications, public works and industry.

In addition to the three portfolios, Aoun would get two ministers of state. One would come from the Armenian Tashnak Party, which is strongly allied to the FPM, while retired General Issam Abu Jamra would grab the other as deputy premier.

Under this formula, Aoun would have to relinquish the Social Affairs Ministry if he insists on getting both the telecommunications and public works portfolios.

The social affairs portfolio would necessarily go to one of the March 14 Forces' Christian parties in order to maintain a certain balance in distributing service-related ministries, which are widely expected to play a key role in boosting the electoral status of the rival parties ahead of next year's parliamentary polls.

Also on Tuesday, Lebanese Forces boss Samir Geagea, one of March 14's more strident voices, criticized Aoun for claiming to fight for the rights of Christians in the next government.

"The new cabinet will necessarily maintain a balance between Muslims and Christians ... Aoun is pretending to fight for Christian rights, while in fact all he wants is to increase his personal gains at the expense of other Christians," Geagea said.

"The Constitution stipulates that the premier and the president are in charge of coming up with the new cabinet lineup ... such a cabinet will not see the light of day if the Christian president disapproves it ... this alone guarantees that Christian rights will not be wasted," he added.

Geagea said Aoun's demands regarding the new government were irrational. "He wants the post of deputy premier and the portfolios for social affairs, public works, telecommunications, and either industry or agriculture ... if Aoun were given all these ministries, what would the other parties get?" he asked.

Meanwhile, former Premier Najib Mikati said Tuesday after meeting Sleiman at the Presidential Palace that there was nothing in the Constitution that links the formation of a new government to a specific deadline.

"There is nothing that forces Siniora to step down ... despite the delay, I believe the next cabinet will [emerge] very soon."

Also on Tuesday, former MP Tamam Salam said after meeting Siniora at the Grand Serail that the prime minister was dissatisfied with the way things were moving with respect to the formation of the new cabinet.

Salam said Siniora was firm on fully implementing the Doha deal, which ended an 18-month political crisis in the country.

The agreement, signed by the rival leaders on May 21, called for the election of Sleiman as president, the formation of a national unity cabinet in which the opposition gets veto power, and the adoption of an amended version of the 1960 qada-based electoral law for next year's parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, caretaker Agriculture Minister Talal Sahili said the delay in forming the new cabinet should be blamed on Siniora, not Berri.

Sahili said after meeting Sleiman that Berri had traveled to Canada to participate in an international parliamentary conference.

Beirut 02-07-2008
The Daily Star

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