Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form govt

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has launched a new attempt to form a  government and end the political deadlock that has gripped the country for months.

After meeting President Michel Aoun on Wednesday, Mikati said: “I presented Aoun with a proposal for the government formation on June 29. We discussed it again today and I can tell you we are starting to see eye to eye.”

The meeting is believed to have improved relations between Mikati and Aoun, which soured after the latter claimed the proposed government formation robbed his political team of the ministries it wanted to keep.

Mikati briefed Aoun about a ministerial meeting that he called on Tuesday and held in his residence. Discussions did not take place in the official Cabinet hall since the government has been in caretaker mode following parliamentary elections in May.

The ministerial meeting focused on the issue of the customs dollar, and urgent financial and economic files.

A source in the PM’s office told Arab News: “Mikati was relieved after the meeting with Aoun. Although he did not want to reveal the details of the discussions, he hopes to form a government soon.”

The source said that during the ministerial meeting, Mikati sought to unify ministers’ views regarding the customs dollar between those who want to price it based on the rate of 12,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar and those who want to adopt the Central Bank’s Sayrafa platform rate of 26,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The customs dollar is still priced at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar — the official price that has prevailed during the past three years of economic collapse.

The source said: “They will most likely settle on an average rate so that the customs dollar would be based on the rate of 20,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. Any decision in this regard requires the government’s approval, which can only happen if a new government is formed and gains Parliament’s vote of confidence. This needs to happen before September since Parliament would turn into an electoral body only as of Sept. 1.”

A political observer said: “The customs dollar needs to be settled and approved to feed the state treasury and limit the collapse.”

Unifying the customs dollar price is one of several conditions Lebanon must meet in order to complete its agreement with the International Monetary Fund, in addition to enacting the capital control law, restructuring banks and approving the 2022 budget.

Political observers fear constitutional crises related to the caretaker government managing the presidential elections may be fabricated, which could suggest that such a government is not eligible to take power in the event of a presidential vacuum, resulting in the current president remaining in office after the end of his term.

The Strong Lebanon Bloc, Aoun’s political team, warned in a statement on Tuesday of the danger of refraining from forming a government under various pretexts that allow a resigned government to take the president’s place if a new one is not elected within the constitutional deadline.

“Any attempt in this direction is rejected and allows constitutional chaos, which may create a custom that could lead to many new ones,” the bloc said.

It demanded Mikati form a new government, taking into account the president’s constitutional role in the process.

The bloc insisted that the presidential candidate should be from a parliamentary bloc with balanced representation, or be supported by significant parliamentary blocs, adding that it will not accept the nomination of those who have no representative capacity.

Meanwhile, more than 350 out of 560 judges have decided to stop work in protest against the withdrawal of a decision to pay judges’ salaries based on the rate of 8,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The Central Bank had adopted this measure to raise the value of the judges’ salaries, but was met with protests by public sector employees, who went on strike until they received pay rises.

The judges’ strike could have serious repercussions, and includes investigative judges and judges in the Public Prosecution Office, as well as members of the Supreme Judicial Council, the State Shoura Council and the Court of Audit.

Aoun addressed judges on Tuesday, urging them “to fight for their dignity and authority, and not fear the oppression of those in power.”

He asked the judiciary “to confront everyone who restricts their judgment in the case filed against Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, and in the Beirut port explosion probe.”

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