Hezbollah increases pressure on Lebanese PM Saad Hariri to convene cabinet

Ministers have not met for a month following a deadly shoot-out between two Druze parties

epa07641468 Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during a news conference at the Government Palace in Beirut, Lebanon, 11 June 2019. Hariri, who returned to Beirut on 11 June 2019 after spending the Eid al-Fitr holiday abroad with his family, was given in response to a spat between his Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by Aoun and now run by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is facing increased pressure to convene his cabinet, which has not met in more than a month since deadly shoot-out between two rival Druze parties.

In a public speech on Saturday, the deputy leader of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite party-cum-militia, said it was “necessary to put an end to the non-meeting of the government”. Naim Qassem also said the shoot-out was a “dangerous” issue that needed to find a “judicial” solution.

On June 30, two bodyguards of Druze minister Saleh Al Gharib were killed in a shoot-out as his car was driving past the village of Qabr Shmoun. Mr Al Gharib’s Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP) accuses its rival, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), of having orchestrated the shooting in an attempt to murder him. The PSP denies the accusations, saying that Mr Al Gharib’s bodyguards started shooting first on a crowd of protesters attempting to block his car, and that armed protesters fired back in self defence.

Backed by Hezbollah and its ally President Michel Aoun, the LDP has repeatedly called for the killers to be tried by the Judicial Council, which deals with state crimes and could prosecute the PSP leader, Walid Jumblatt, an ally of Mr Hariri.

Fearing an escalation of tensions, Mr Hariri refuses to convene the cabinet until a solution is found, but mediation attempts between the two parties have failed so far. LDP leader Talal Arslane reiterated on Sunday that he wants the government to settle the issue as soon as it meets again.

Analysts have interpreted the Druze infighting as a broader proxy fight between Lebanese allies of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, such as the LDP and Hezbollah, and his opponents, of whom Mr Jumblatt is one of the most vocal. After the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 after 29 years of occupation, Damascus continued to interfere in Lebanese politics. The power struggle could lead to the government’s collapse, should the LDP and its backers, who make up one-third of the cabinet, all resign simultaneously.

The Hezbollah deputy leader's public statement of support for the LDP came a day after local TV network LBCI reported that President Aoun had asked Mr Hariri to convene the cabinet as soon as possible. The station said the prime minister agreed to the request, but this was immediately denied by pro-Hariri sources quoted in the newspaper Al Moustakbal, which is affiliated with Mr Hariri's party.

Hezbollah-leaning daily Al Akhbar said on Saturday that Mr Hariri's refusal to convene the cabinet signalled "weakness". The prime minister's party, the Future Movement, lost more than a third of its seats in parliamentary elections last year, while Hezbollah and its allies strengthened their positions.

In an analysis, Al Akhbar noted that Mr Hariri's father Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, had also refused to convene his cabinet for a week in May 1994 when he was prime minister because he objected to a media law that was being discussed in parliament.

Upon instruction from the head of Syria's security apparatus in Lebanon at the time, Rafiq Hariri was forced to allow the government to meet. His move failed even though he was at the height of his political influence as leader of the Lebanese Sunni community, while his son is today at "the height of his weakness", Al Akhbar said.