Lebanese president Michel Aoun and Hezbollah send mixed messages on new government

Hassan Nasrallah says group stands by its demands hours after president says solution will be found soon

Supporter of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group raise their fists and cheer as they listen to a speech of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, via a video link, during a rally marking Hezbollah Martyr's Day, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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After more than six months of political deadlock over the formation of a national unity government, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Saturday that a solution will be found to the final snags hindering progress.

However, in a televised speech only a few hours later, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah suggested that his group would not budge on a demand that is widely believed to be the primary obstacle to forming a government.

Rival political parties in Lebanon have been in disagreement since May’s parliamentary election over the distribution of key ministerial portfolios and the number of cabinet seats allocated to each group, hampering attempts by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to form a governing coalition.

Hezbollah, an ally of the president and the primary political rival of the Sunni leader, has complicated the process by calling on Mr Hariri to cede a seat to one of its Sunni allies - a demand he has rejected. This has stymied any move towards resolving the current deadlock and led Mr Hariri’s allies to accuse Hezbollah of purposely delaying cabinet formation to undermine the prime minister.

Local and international officials have been calling for Lebanon to form a new cabinet quickly in order to pass much-needed reforms at a time when the long-stalled economy is on the verge of total collapse. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on Friday voiced fears for Lebanon's currency if the deadlock continued.

In a meeting with the head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Mr Aoun said no effort would be spared to resolve the country’s political crisis.

"The matter requires bravery and patience to reach the end, but we will find the solution because waiting is a waste of time," a statement from the presidency cited Mr Aoun as saying.

Mr Nasrallah, however, said Hezbollah would continue to support its Sunni allies and stand by any decision they took regarding their participation in government.

“We have stood by them and will continue to do so, for one year, two years, or even till the end of days,” he said, hinting at the possibility of a long-lasting delay to the formation of a national unity government.

The Hezbollah leader responded to accusations that his group was obstructing progress by saying that it had raised the demand for Sunni representation in talks five months ago, denying reports that it was a “last minute” snag.


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Hours before his speech, a statement from Hezbollah said Mr Nasrallah had met Mr Aoun's son-in-law and close adviser Gebran Bassil to discuss the formation of a government and efforts "to resolve the complications".

Mr Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, the party established by Mr Aoun, said on Friday that he had “started to work on a solution” to the problem of Sunni representation.

Hezbollah’s Sunni allies met the president on Friday and reiterated their request to be represented in cabinet.

“We asked to be represented by one of six lawmakers in the government, and this is the first and final solution,” Abdel Rahim Mrad, a representative of the so-called “independent” Sunni group, said at a press conference after the meeting. “President Aoun fully understood our point of view and requested that the issue of representation be dealt with calmly,” he said.

A confessional political system established after the country’s 15-year civil war has entrenched a need to ensure a sectarian balance in a country of 18 official sects. This means that it can take months or years to agree on a government that includes all major factions.

The current six-month-long political deadlock has threatened to plunge Lebanon into economic crisis given the country has the third-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world.

The formation of a government would unlock money pledged by the international community in April to help the struggling economy and to benefit from other loans from the World Bank.