Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri sounded the alarm on Saturday, saying the process of forming a new government, already five months in the making, is back to square one, amid a protracted stalemate between rival political factions over ministerial portfolios.
Berri's comments dampen the optimism of Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri, who earlier this week attempted to assuage concerns at home and from international financial institutions by announcing that a new cabinet could be formed within a week or 10 days.
"We're back to zero," Berri told al-Akhbar newspaper on Saturday, noting that "there were signs of a resolution, but following yesterday's statements, I have become pessimistic," referring to a war of words that played out on Friday between the country's two major Christian parties.
What happened on Friday?
The head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and caretaker minister of foreign affairs Gebran Bassil in a press conference put forward a "fair criterion" to represent political parties in the cabinet based on their parliamentary weight.
"The fair criterion is [for each party to have] a minister for every five deputies," said Bassil, who is also the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. He noted that the FPM should be allowed six ministerial portfolios in the 30-seat body, while their Christian opponents, the Lebanese Forces, should have three ministers.
Bassil's party won 29 seats in the 128-strong parliament, while the Lebanese Forces almost doubled their presence in the legislative organ with 15 seats.
The minister's comments triggered criticism from the Lebanese Forces, who are demanding a third of the Christian representation in the new government.
"It is not Bassil who sets criteria and standards for the government [formation], but rather the prime minister [who does so] after [reaching] an understanding with the president, and we have not been notified by either leader that they had reached consensus on the criterion that Bassil has spoken about," said the party in a statement.
The clash between the two Christian parties is one of many ongoing disputes among political blocs over the representation of certain sects, including Sunnis and Druze Muslims, in the cabinet -- a result of Lebanon's power-sharing political system that tries to strike a balance between the country's confessional communities but often leads to governance paralysis and acrimony among politicians.
"As for the ministerial representation of Christians, the only logical measure is the percentage obtained by each party in the recent parliamentary elections. The Lebanese Forces received one-third of the Christian popular representation, and thus it is entitled to one-third of the ministerial representation in the government," the statement read.
The current deadlock over who takes what has thrown a wrench into earlier reassurances by prime minister Hariri that a new government will see the light of day in no time.
What did Hariri say?
Hariri on Thursday said that a new government is only a few days away, stressing that the country's current economic woes do not allow the formation process to drag longer.
"The economic situation is very difficult... (it) can't bear disputes," Hariri said in a television interview.
"Everyone must make sacrifices," he noted, adding that "Within a week to ten days the government will be formed."
Talks about creating a new government have been underway since the country's parliamentary elections in May -- the first Lebanon had witnessed in nine years.
There have been domestic and international calls to push the negotiations forward so as to deal with Lebanon's economy, which has been teetering on the edge of collapse.
"Continued political bickering over the distribution of ministerial posts could delay further the formation of a new unity cabinet and derail policy implementation," the Institute of International Finance (IIF), a Washington-based think tank, said in September, as it expected the country's economic growth to fall from an estimated 1.8 in 2017 to 1.3 percent this year.
The World Bank earlier this month went even further, halving Lebanon's growth in 2018 to just one percent, amid spiraling debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio that it forecast to "persist in an unsustainable path toward 155 percent by end-2018."
Plenty hangs on the formation of a Lebanese government. Some 11 billion US dollars were earmarked for Lebanon during an international conference in Paris in April on condition of fiscal and structural reforms, but the loans and grants have yet to be released until a new functional government is up and running.