October 30, 2018 / 3:04 PM / 19 days ago

Lebanese government talks hit snag over Sunni representation

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Hezbollah pressed a demand for one of its Sunni allies to be given a post in a new government on Tuesday as politicians sought a compromise to a standoff pitting the Iranian-backed group against prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri.

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri talks inside the parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon May 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

Hariri, Lebanon’s main Sunni Muslim politician, is trying to clinch a deal on a national unity government more than five months since a general election that produced a parliament tilted in favour of Hezbollah and its allies.

A major hurdle was cleared on Monday when a row over Christian representation was settled with the staunchly anti-Hezbollah Christian Lebanese Forces ceding ground to President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement, a Hezbollah ally.

The row over Sunni representation is the last problem.

Hezbollah is insisting one of its Sunni allies be made a minister to reflect the result of an election in which Hariri lost more than a third of his seats, many of them to Sunni allies of Hezbollah.

“Our view is that their demand is just and we stand by them,” senior Hezbollah official Hussein Khalil said in televised comments after meeting with the group’s Sunni allies.

“I believe the problem of the representation of the independent Sunni MPs is not bigger than the problems that were solved,” he said.

Hariri has ruled out giving up one of his cabinet seats. A possible compromise would be for Aoun to appoint one of the Hezbollah-allied Sunnis within a group of ministers named by the head of state.

Lebanon is dire need of a government that can embark on economic reforms that are seen as more pressing than ever. The country is wrestling with the world’s third largest public debt as a proportion of the economy and stagnant growth.

Government posts in Lebanon are filled according to a strict sectarian system. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim. Posts in the cabinet of 30 ministers must be split equally between Christians and Muslims.

Faisal Karami, one the Hezbollah-allied Sunni MPs, criticised Hariri and his Future Movement party.

“He wants to monopolise the entire Sunni sect for himself,” Karami told LBC television. “Today the Future Movement no longer represents the absolute, overwhelming majority in the Sunni street.”

Rashed Fayed, a Future Movement official, said the demand by Hezbollah and its allies was “sudden” and “contrived” after months when the subject had not surfaced in the cabinet discussions. “Saad al-Hariri will not let it pass,” he told Reuters.

A second source in the Hariri camp described the row as quite serious and said resolving it “will take time”.

Together, Hezbollah and its political allies secured more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in the election, Lebanon’s first in nine years.

Hezbollah, proscribed as a terrorist movement by the United States, is expected to take control of the health ministry, the most significant cabinet post it has held, and to increase its number of ministers to three from two in the outgoing cabinet.

Reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam; editing by David Stamp

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