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Aoun, Berri spar again, complicate bids to resolve row.

Summary: President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri engaged in fresh mud-slinging Monday over a decree promoting a number of Army officers, marking a serious escalation in a monthlong standoff that threatens to throw the country into political turmoil and paralyze the functioning of state institutions.

BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri engaged in fresh mud-slinging Monday over a decree promoting a number of Army officers, marking a serious escalation in a monthlong standoff that threatens to throw the country into political turmoil and paralyze the functioning of state institutions.

The so-called "war of statements" pitting Aoun against Berri over the signing of the controversial decree that seeks to promote a number of Lebanese Army officers who served under Aoun in the late 1980s, when he was Army commander, reflected not only the two leaders' conflicting positions on tackling the decree crisis, but also their deep-rooted political rift that dates back to the speaker's opposition to Aoun's election as president on Oct. 31, 2016.

Aoun Monday showed no signs of relenting on his tough stance on the decree row, and instead implicitly reiterated his call on Berri to resort to the judiciary to contest the dispute.

In a statement issued by his media office, Aoun blasted the prolongation of the decree crisis, saying he was ready to accept the judiciary's decision even if it would revoke the decree. He stressed that the judiciary should be the final arbiter in the widening dispute over the officers' promotion decree.

"Since the argument over the decree began, President Michel Aoun has suggested that those who objected to the issuance of the decree should review it before the concerned judicial authorities that look into the disputes arising as a result of the issuance of decrees by the executive authority," the statement said. "President Aoun has announced he would accept in advance the judicial decision even if it would annul the decree and its effects," it added.

The statement condemned the nature of the dispute, saying any issues with the decree should be dealt with through the judiciary.

"Despite the president's clear and decisive position in this respect, the argument over the decree continued and at many times took a turn contrary to rules and did not serve national interest," the statement said. "Toward this, the president would like to affirm one last time his commitment to accept the judiciary's decision on the mentioned decree."

"The president hopes that this clarification will put an end to the ongoing controversy over the 1994 officers' seniority promotion decree and leaves it to the judicial authorities to say its final word," the statement added.

The decree, signed last month by Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, sidestepping the finance minister's approval, has whipped up tensions between Aoun and Berri. The decree seeks to promote around 200 Army officers -- all Christians aside from 15 Muslims -- who served under Aoun in the late 1980s when he was Army commander, advancing their seniority and rank by one year.

Berri was reported to have been enraged because the decree ignored the finance minister's signature and upset the sectarian balance given the fact that a large number of Christian officers stood to benefit from the promotion while only a few Muslim officers would benefit. The speaker said that the dispute would be solved if the finance minister adds his signature to the decree.

Aoun has maintained that the decree is legitimate and constitutional and does not require the finance minister's signature in order to be implemented, while Berri insists that the decree should have been inked by Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, a top political aide to the speaker.

In a quick response to Aoun's statement, Berri said that the contentious decree was "a flagrant violation" of the Constitution, rather than a legal problem that can be appealed before the State Shura Council as demanded by the president. He added that Parliament was the only body eligible to interpret the Constitution.

"Although we also share [with the president] our deep desire to put an end to the ongoing controversy over the constitutionality of the decree ... what happened was not merely a legal problem over a decree that can be challenged before the Shura Council," a statement issued by Berri's media office said. "It was a flagrant violation of a constitutional rule called 'a constitutional rotation' by circumventing the jurisdiction of a constitutional authority [Parliament] and extremely clear articles in the Constitution," the statement added.

It referred to articles in the Constitution stipulating that decisions signed by the president should also be signed by the prime minister and the relevant minister or ministers. The statement noted that Aoun cannot issue a decree on the officers' promotion because the matter had already been previously discussed and rejected by Parliament.

Berri appealed to Aoun to back down on the decree. "Lastly, one of the virtues, as the honorable presidency knows, is to correct the mistake if it is not possible to rescind it," the statement added.

Berri has rebuffed Aoun's repeated requests to go to the judiciary to contest the officers' decree. He argued that he would not resort to the judiciary as long as the Justice Ministry was controlled by Salim Jreissati, who belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement, which Aoun founded.

Berri said he would not back down on his rejection of the decree as long as it sidestepped the finance minister's signature. He also warned that the decree crisis could drag on until the date of parliamentary polls, slated for May 6.

The toughing of Aoun's and Berri's positions is putting a damper on mediation attempts by Hariri and Hezbollah, both of which have said they are seeking a solution to the decree crisis.

Hariri did not visit Berri's Ain al-Tineh residence last week as was widely expected for talks billed as "crucial" for breaking the deadlock. This reflected continuing difficulties in reaching a solution to the crisis, given Aoun's and Berri's unyielding positions.

Future Movement MP Ammar Houri said Hariri was making efforts to overcome the decree crisis. "The officers' decree crisis is not confined to a constitutional or legal dispute. President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri have said it is a political dispute," Houri told Asharq Radio station.

"We hope that Prime Minister Hariri will be able to tackle this [decree] issue so that the situation can return to normal," Houri said.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Jan 9, 2018
Words:1084
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