Prime Minister Saad Hariri asserted Thursday that the new Cabinet would be marked by cooperation among ministers and ruled out any dispute with President Michel Aoun.
“We are all in one Cabinet, partners with the president and Parliament to begin working, and this is the spirit of our work in the coming days,” Hariri said, according to Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour, who spoke to reporters after a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail.
Unlike last week’s session, the meeting Hariri headed Thursday was calm.
Tension erupted last week after Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib visited Damascus to discuss the issue of refugee returns with Syrian officials.
Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab also courted controversy in a visit to Munich, where he said Lebanese ministers were free to visit Syria and emphasized the need for direct communication between Beirut and Damascus over refugee returns.
During last week’s Cabinet session, Aoun took a firm stance on the issue, saying he was the one to decide the country’s higher interests.
The issue rekindled a row over the constitutional powers of the president and the prime minister in outlining Lebanon’s policies.
“We started a new phase,” Hariri said Thursday, according to Abu Faour, who read out the Cabinet’s decisions instead of Information Minister Jamal Jarrah. “Lebanese citizens want results and accomplishments, and not bickering.”
During the session, Hariri informed ministers about his participation in the European Union-Arab League Summit, held earlier this week in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh.
The premier told the ministers about the talks he had held with foreign officials, particularly those related to the CEDRE conference, held last April in Paris to garner support for Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure.
“Hariri also stressed the need for ministers to give the CEDRE conference sufficient attention and follow up on its decisions,” Abu Faour said.
Hariri said that the premier was the only official authorized to communicate with the international community and donors, Abu Faour added. Hariri also said the premier was responsible for coordinating between all ministries.
“Regular meetings will be held to coordinate with the relevant ministries, each according to the subject that concerns it,” Abu Faour quoted Hariri as saying. The Cabinet discussed an agenda of 52 items, some of which were approved. However, it didn’t discuss Agriculture Minister Hasan Lakkis’ request to visit Syria to hold talks with Syrian officials on Lebanese imports through the Nassib border crossing.
The ministers approved a request by the Finance Ministry to issue Eurobonds. Speaking during the session, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said a radical discussion was needed on the financial situation and measures the government could take to resolve Lebanon’s economic issues.
Khalil also said the 2019 draft state budget should be discussed swiftly so that it could eventually be endorsed.
The Cabinet also approved requests presented by Education Minister Akram Chehayeb. One called for ensuring that Syrian and other non-Lebanese students, and students that had studied in Syria or other countries, would be able to sit for official 2019 grade nine and grade 12 exams.
Passing these exams allows students to move from middle school to high school and from high school to university, respectively.
The Education Ministry had also called for promoting teachers that had passed state exams. The Cabinet approved this, despite reservations from some ministers.
Opponents of the decision, according to Abu Faour, said the focus should be on decreasing public spending in order to send positive signals domestically and internationally.
Members of the Free Patriotic Movement were among those who opposed the move. FPM head Gebran Bassil was quoted by local media as saying that these decisions “might satisfy some people, but they threaten everyone’s fate.” He warned that the “economic and financial situation will deteriorate” if a set method for public spending is not established.
The Cabinet also discussed a proposal by the Industry Ministry to protect national products such as pasta, flour, biscuits and detergents.
It was agreed that a ministerial committee headed by Hariri would be formed to address the issue and would hold its first meeting next week.
The committee members are set to include the deputy prime minister, the minister of state for foreign trade and the economy, industry and telecommunications ministers.
The Cabinet also approved funds offered by the European Union to finance a project along the Litani River basin, as well as a request by the Interior Ministry to accept a memorandum of understanding between the U.N. Development Program and Lebanon’s Civil Defense.
The Interior Ministry’s request to authorize the minister to approve the temporary use of police by municipalities and municipal unions for 2019 was also approved.
Speaker Nabih Berri also headed a meeting of Parliament’s Secretariat Thursday. During the meeting, it was agreed that a legislative session would be held on March 6 and 7.
In addition to holding the legislative session to discuss a series of draft laws, Parliament is set to elect members to the Higher Council, a corruption-fighting body established by an article in the Constitution to try presidents and ministers accused of corruption and wrongdoing. The council will include MPs and members of the judiciary.