An in-depth article published by The National highlights the attempts of President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil in ensuring that any new government will allow them to advance their political agenda.
“This involves two primary objectives: saving Mr Aoun’s shipwreck of a presidency and guaranteeing that Bassil will become the next president, in 2022,” Lebanese columnist Michael Young wrote.
In October, Saad Hariri was assigned to form a government. However, the cabinet formation process has been dragged on and put on hold until the new year.
Hariri has left Beirut to spend the New Year’s holiday with his family abroad, a clear indication that nothing would happen in the government formation efforts before the start of 2021.
Either way, Hariri’s attempts to form a proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to carry out reforms have been obstructed by competing parties fighting for vital ministerial seats.
In specific, Aoun has reportedly been blocking the cabinet formation efforts over the naming of Christian ministers and over who controls three sovereign ministries that deal with security: The Defense, Interior, and Justice.
The president had previously warned that he would defend his interests in the cabinet-formation process, way before Hariri was chosen by parliament to head the new government.
In normal cases, the Taif agreement of 1989, which is embedded in the Lebanese constitution, mentions that the prime minister-designate “signs the decree forming the government with the president”.
“Aoun has re-interpreted this vague rule to negotiate over Hariri’s ministerial choices,” Young wrote.
The media outlet highlights that Aoun’s and Bassil’s demands for the Defense, Interior, and Justice ministries are a good indicator of their strategy regarding the remaining two years of Aoun’s presidential term.
“The Justice Ministry is a sign that Aoun intends to use the two years left of his term to open corruption files against his political enemies. In that way he can affirm that he is an honest man who is fighting shady political rivals who have not allowed his presidency to succeed,” the Lebanese columnist wrote.
“Such an effort is unlikely to work, all the more so as Bassil’s integrity is a matter of considerable doubt. Yet, it would allow Aoun to create an alternative narrative for his disastrous time in office,” he added.
Taking charge of the Interior Ministry also insinuates that Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil would be in control of organising municipal and parliamentary elections in 2022.
Hence, the reason why it is extremely important for them to make sure that the election does not confirm their loss of popularity, which would “undermine Bassil’s presidential ambitions”.
The National went on to state that Bassil would collapse the government before the end of Aoun’s term, and engage in blackmail in order not to allow the formation of a new one until Lebanon’s leading politicians supported his election as president.
A second angle of Aoun’s and Bassil’s plan is to renew the presidency, in order to bring about some changes in the Taif agreement, which reduced the powers of the Maronite Christian president as well as ended the civil war, helping the country return to political normalcy in Lebanon.
“In that way, both men could argue that they returned power to the Maronites. Bassil could therefore portray himself as a communal champion meriting the presidency,” Young noted.
The main key in this whole scheme is Aoun’s effort in obtaining effective veto power over Hariri’s proposed cabinet line-ups.
Look at it this way, Aoun’s signature is needed for a government to be formed. So technically, he already has implicit veto power. Yet, at the same time, nothing in the constitution states that a president is obliged to form a government with the prime minister-designate, which is what Aoun is doing.
Hariri has previously cited “clear complications” that had shattered his hopes for a new Cabinet before Christmas after holding his 14th meeting with Aoun.
Aoun has implicitly accused Hariri of deviating from unified criteria in the formation of a new government. This comes as a result of an escalation by Aoun and his son-in-law for their positions on the Cabinet formation process by insisting on naming most of the nine Christian ministers.
“There are two problems here. First, the constitution is vague, and there is no credible, independent judicial body in Lebanon to resolve constitutional ambiguities,” Young points out.
“And second, Hariri agreed with the two main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, to allow the Shiites to retain the Finance Ministry and sign off on the naming of Shiite ministers. In that way he boxed himself in, opening the door for Aoun to argue that he too should participate in shaping the government,” he added.
The formation of a new government to deliver reforms is urgently demanded by the international community. However, until Aoun leaves office, Bassil will continue to utilize all the weapons at his disposal to block cabinet formation and force himself as the successor to his father-in-law.