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Jumblatt’s camp says Bassil a “shadow prime minister”

Lebanese politics

After the formation of the new cabinet, circles close to Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party are criticizing Gebran Bassil’s influence on an overly accommodating Hariri.

The dispute between Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Walid Jumblatt and Prime Minister Saad Hariri intensified on Sunday as Jumblatt accused Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil of encroaching on the role of the Prime Minister during negotiations leading to the formation of a new government last week. Making matters worse, Bassil claimed credit for removing the obstacles that had blocked the formation of a new government for months and for solving disputes over the ministerial declaration, particularly related to the return of Syrian refugees, that will outline the government’s priorities.

Frustrated by Hariri’s silence, the PSP advocated for the formation of an opposition within the cabinet to stand up for the principles of the Taif Agreement and to fight questionable deals that could divert $11 billion worth of loans secured at last April’s CEDRE Conference in Paris.

On Monday, the Prime Minister reacted forcefully to the PSP’s talk of opposition, stating: “Whoever plans to obstruct the productive process should move aside. If he does not, I will continue even if I bump into anyone.”

“We still have not begun work, but political conflicts started,” Hariri’s statement continued, stressing that Lebanese citizens were tired of political bickering between parties. “If we do not work effectively, produce, fulfill the demands of the people and solve their problems, we will all go home,” he added.

President Michel Aoun reacted to the controversy, expressing his “surprise for this criticism of the government even before it even starts working,” according to the President’s official Twitter account.

President Aoun also said that the new cabinet will focus on the economic situation and the fight against corruption as well as on the Syrian refugee issue.

Jumblatt’s motives

Jumblatt said that there had been a flagrant violation of the Prime Minister’s role during the cabinet formation process and warned that the Taif Agreement was in danger of being violated by Hariri’s lack of assertiveness. He also warned of the influence of the Syrian regime in the new cabinet, which was designed according to what Bassil wanted.

According to one PSP official: "The Prime minister has become reluctant to any criticism,” as if he were acting under the influence of shadow prime minister. The official was clearly referencing Bassil, who is President Aoun’s son in law.

Jumblatt’s harsh criticism of Hariri comes as the Druze leader seems increasing cornered politically. He is facing pressure from Aoun’s circles, which adopted an ultra-Christian discourse that is hostile to the 2001 Mountain Reconciliation. At the same time, pro-Assad figures within the Druze community are trying to undermine his leadership, and the status quo with Hezbollah looks increasingly precarious.

According to the PSP official, the attack against Hariri came because the Prime Minister crossed a line by giving the Syrian refugee portfolio to a minister close to Jumblatt’s druze rival, pro-Syrian MP Talal Arslan. Jumblatt’s criticism, the official continued, was nothing more than what people within Hariri’s own block, such as former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, have said. "We value our relationship with the Future Movement with whom we have led strategic battles (editor’s note: the 2005 Cedar Revolution, for example), but we ask that Saad Hariri does not remain passive in front of Gebran Bassil,” the PSP official added.

According to L’Orient-Le Jour’s sources, Hariri had three meetings with Bassil and a Lebanese businessman in Paris two days before the new cabinet was announced. The meetings focused on how to finalize a government that would meet the interest of Aoun and Bassil’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), according to Hariri’s critics, who added they were further evidence of Hariri’s passivity.

These meetings appear to have re-established the presidential compromise agreed on in Paris three years ago during similar bilateral meetings. The head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, who happened to be in Paris at the same time, met Hariri separately after efforts to have a tripartite meeting with Bassil failed, according to an independent political observer.

The LF’s neutral stance

On Monday, Education Minister Akram Chehayeb visited LF’s headquarters in Maarab, where he met with Geagea in the presence of former MP Antoine Zahra. Despite keeping the topics they discussed secret, people close to the LF insist that the party remains neutral in the conflict between Jumblatt and Hariri. An LF source said that the two remain "political allies" on topics ranging from the sovereignty of the state to Taif despite "disagreements on some issues", such as the Syrian refugee file.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 5th of February)

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