Monday, July 07, 2008

Lebanese leaders in final stages of talks on unity government

Lebanese leaders in final stages of talks on unity government
New cabinet likely to be announced 'within 48 hours'

By Hussein Abdallah
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Lebanon's rival political parties were in the final stages of agreeing on the makeup of a new unity government on Sunday, with a cabinet lineup expected to be announced within the next 48 hours. Significant progress was reportedly made between the two camps after a meeting between Prime Minister designate Fouad Siniora and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun on Saturday. The two sides reportedly agreed on which portfolios would be given to the retired general in the new cabinet. The various parties of the March 14 alliance were reportedly sorting out their differences over the distribution of the remaining portfolios, and reports on Sunday said that the final government line-up would be decided once parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri returns to Beirut. Siniora said on Saturday that he was confident that a national unity government for Lebanon would be announced soon, but dismissed reports that it was imminent. "The clock has started ticking for the formation of a government," Siniora told reporters after talks with Aoun. "The formation of a government continues and I am confident that in the near future we will reach" a line-up, he added. Asked if the new government would be announced Saturday, he replied: "Not today." Siniora said he agreed with Aoun "on the portfolios and names" of new ministers, but also added that he must continue with his consultations.

Youth and Sports Minister Ahmad Fatfat earlier told AFP that a government would be announced within hours. "The announcement of a national unity government will very probably take place today," Fatfat said. Rival leaders have been locked in political bickering over the past six weeks over the distribution of key portfolios in the new government, despite a deal reached in Qatar on May 21 after deadly sectarian fighting.

The Doha agreement paved the way for the election on May 25 of army chief Michel Sleiman as president, filling a post left vacant since November. The agreement stipulated that the parliamentary majority would get 16 seats in the new government, leaving 11 ministers for the opposition and three for the president. News reports on Sunday said Aoun's nominees for the cabinet were Gibran Bassil (telecommunications), Mario Aoun (social affairs), former minister Alan Tabourian (energy), MP Elias Skaff (agriculture) and retired general Issam Abu Jamra for the post of deputy premier.

Siniora, who resumed on Sunday his contacts aimed at speeding up the birth of the new government, discussed with both Mario Aoun and Tabourian their prospective roles in the cabinet. Siniora met Speaker Nabih Berri Saturday before receiving a delegation from Hizbullah at the Grand Serail. Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's political aide Hussein Khalil, who was heading the delegation, told reporters after meeting Siniora that an agreement has been sealed over which portfolios would go the opposition. "After agreeing on the portfolios, we have now entered the stage of discussing names," Khalil said. News reports Sunday said Hizbullah had tipped caretaker Energy Minister Mohammad Fneish for the Labor Ministry.

However, the group remained vague on the two remaining names amid reports that said that one of Hizbullah's three cabinet seats might go to former Minister Talal Arslan. As for Berri's quota, the reports said caretaker Health Minister Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh was likely to stay in his post, while the foreign affairs portfolio would either stay with resigned Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh or go to Mahmoud Berri, the speaker's brother. The name of Berri's nominee for the Industry Ministry remained uncertain. As for Sleiman's three ministers, the reports said caretaker Defense Minister Elias Murr (Greek Orthodox) was likely to stay in his post, while lawyer and legal expert Ziyad Baroud (Maronite) was reportedly tipped for the Interior Ministry. The name of Sleiman's Catholic nominee remained uncertain, but sources close to the Presidential Palace told The Daily Star that the president's third ministry might be taken by businessman Talal al-Makdessi. The agreement over the opposition's portfolios left the different parties constituting the March 14 Forces to share the portfolios of finance, justice, public works, education, economy, displaced, information, environment, culture, administrative development and tourism. News reports on Sunday said that there were some differences within the majority camp over allocating some portfolios, such as the Public Works Ministry. But March 14 lawmaker Butors Harb and former MP Fares Soueid denied those reports.

Meanwhile, The Daily Star learned that Qatari Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani contacted all Lebanese leaders over the weekend and that his effort contributed to ending the impasse in Lebanon. Sheikh Jabr bin Youssef, head of the Qatari prime minister's office and his emissary to Lebanon, has reportedly met with the rival leaders and encouraged them to continue with reconciliation in order to form a new government in adherence to the Doha agreement. Although there were other factors that led to the facilitation of forming a new cabinet, the Qatari goodwill that constituted a part of Doha's efforts have played a significant role in narrowing differences. Meanwhile, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa expressed hope that a government in Lebanon would see the light "in hours." Moussa said that his recent contacts with Lebanese parties had led him to draw the conclusion that real progress has been achieved - With AFP

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