Lebanese Minister Ends Boycott of Cabinet Hearings

BEIRUT (Reuters)–A Lebanese minister ended a five-week-long boycott of cabinet meetings on Wednesday–restoring unity to the new government of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Youth and Sports Minister Sebouh Hovnanian–who is of Armenian descent–had said he would shun cabinet meetings until Hariri appointed a second Armenian to the 30-member government which took office in October.

His absence had marred proceedings of a cabinet line-up that includes representatives from Lebanon’s several religious and ethnic communities.

Hovnanian told Reuters after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting he had ended his boycott after receiving assurance from Hariri and President Emile Lahoud that they would address his concerns at "the appropriate time."

Sebouh Hovnanian now says the government has agreed to add a second Armenian to the cabinet but is still undecided whether to expand the already bloated 30-man team–or to replace an existing minister–probably Basil Fleihan.

Hovnanian announced he would be resuming his duties as Minister of Youth and Sports affairs after a month long absence–but that he would continue to boycott cabinet meetings until a second Armenian was added.

Hovnanian–an ARF party member and ally of Michel Murr–said the prime minister had decided to bow to Armenian pressure–but "we are asking for this decision to be applied." The Armenia’s claim that the Taif Accord stipulates they should have two representatives in a large cabinet. None of the Armenian parliament ministers voted for the government in the vote of confidence debate in November–to show their displeasure–while Hovnanian has refused to participate in government.

The government is apparently divided over how best to incorporate a second Armenian minister while maintaining an equal number of Christian and Muslim ministers.

"We would rather have the cabinet represented by 32 ministers instead of 30," Hovnanian said. "This way there will be another Armenian in the cabinet–as well as another Muslim."

An Alawite addition is most likely if a 32-member cabinet were chosen. Hovnanian did not support the idea of Bassel Fleihan–the Protestant Minister of Economy and Trade who would step down to make room for an Armenian. The move would be a blow to the prime minister–who appointed Fleihan.

When asked who he thinks the next Armenian minister would be–Hovnanian said he should be someone accepted within but not necessarily from the ARF party. Nor does he think that it will be someone from the parliament.

"We could have suggested George Kassarji–Zahle MP or anyone else from the ARF–but we did not," said Hovnanian. Kassarji is a pro-ARF MP–but four ARF opponents won Armenian seats in the last election.

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