Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 September 2009
Issue No. 965
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The temperature rises

The resignation of Lebanon's prime minister designate Saad Al-Hariri has caused the country to slide back into political crisis, reports Lucy Fielder from Beirut

Lebanon's prime minister designate Saad Al-Hariri stepped down last week as the crisis escalated in the country, which has been without a government for nearly three months.

While MPs are expected to reappoint him, it is not yet clear whether Al-Hariri will be any more able to overcome the divide between the majority he heads and the opposition led by Hizbullah should he try to form a national unity government a second time round.

It is also not clear that he will want to. Negotiations have been dragging on since mid-June, when Al-Hariri and his allies took the majority of seats in the Lebanese parliament -- 71 to the opposition's 57 -- in elections on 9 June. Voices in the majority have meanwhile become more strident, with MPs telling the media that Al-Hariri will get tougher on the opposition's demands for a veto- wielding third of the 30-member cabinet posts if he is re- appointed.

Al-Hariri has himself said that he will "deal likewise" with anyone who does not re-appoint him, and that he has the right to "adopt a different strategy" in any future consultations on a government. Analysts say Al-Hariri hopes for an invigorated mandate once re-appointed and to portray the opposition as responsible for any breakdown.

As the rhetoric has been stepped up, so has a widespread belief that the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement that has enabled Lebanon to enjoy a calm summer been put back on ice. Syria backs the opposition, while Riyadh has close links to Al-Hariri and his Future Movement, and regionally the two countries compete for influence.

Further adding to the sense that Lebanon is slipping into its old role as a "mailbox" for the region was the recent firing of five rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel, and Israel's retaliation with artillery fire.

While no one was injured, and a little-known group claimed responsibility, media on both sides have speculated that the rockets might have been a reminder by the opposition of the ever-present possibility of instability on the border if a government is formed that is not to its liking.

Neither Hizbullah nor its popular Christian ally Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, nominated Al-Hariri last time round, and nor have they nominated him this.

Under the country's constitution, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman must hold consultations with parliamentarians and then appoint the candidate who gets the most nominations as premier. But in a sign of growing tensions, the Shia Amal leader and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, another member of the opposition, did not nominate Al-Hariri this time round, unlike last.

"Al-Hariri still has the majority, so he'll be re- designated," said Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. "But there's no guarantee that a government will be formed. We need a new regional dynamic to enable him to form a cabinet and to make the opposition less rigid. This could go on for a long time."

Last year, Lebanon was without a president for six months, and the already drawn-out absence of a government is recalling that vacuum for many. The former crisis ended following an explosion of violence, and Hizbullah led a takeover of parts of west Beirut after the pro- Western government tried to crack down on its communications networks.

No one is now in any doubt as to how far the group will go in order to retain its weapons, which it says are vital in order to fight Israel, and the majority has since had to concede a veto-wielding blocking third to the opposition alliance.

All sides had agreed on 15 seats to the majority, 10 to the opposition and five to the president, but with one of the last being in effect an opposition MP, this results in a "hidden blocking third".

If Al-Hariri's newly tough rhetoric indicates the end of that concession to the opposition, it could also signify a harder line from Saudi Arabia and Washington. Many analysts also point to the expiry of a US-imposed end-of- September deadline for Iran to begin international talks on its nuclear programme as heralding a tougher regional climate ahead.

On the domestic level, leaving aside foreign backers on both sides, at stake is a simple tussle for cabinet positions.

The majority blames Michel Aoun for blocking the negotiations. The Christian leader has negotiated hard, demanding five ministries, including the interior and telecommunications, using the argument that he represents Lebanon's Christians.

Majority criticism has focussed on Aoun's choice of his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, since the latter was not re- elected an MP in the June elections. It has also been pointed out that the telecommunications post has a strategic value, given that phone records are at the heart of an international investigation into Al-Hariri's father Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination in 2005 and the arrests of Lebanese citizens accused of spying for Israel earlier this year.

Expected mobile network privatisation deals are also potentially highly lucrative, to the tune of $7 billion. Opposition figures believe the aim of the focus on Aoun is to split the opposition and discredit the main Christian leader so that the majority can then claim to represent the country's Christians.

For his part, Ibrahim Al-Amine, chairman of the board of the pro-opposition Al-Akhbar daily, said that Al-Hariri appeared to have received external support towards the end of the recent negotiations when he dropped the talks and unilaterally presented a line-up to the president. This was sure to be a red rag to the opposition, which had insisted on naming its own ministers.

"Everyone knows that not abiding by the rules of an agreement in a country like Lebanon means one of two things: either Al-Hariri is getting ready to quit and leave the other political team in control, which is unlikely, or he wants to get into a confrontation in order to impose his own views," Al-Amine wrote this week.

"In that case, what is Al-Hariri relying on? Is he capable of convincing President Suleiman of the feasibility of a monochrome cabinet, or is he expecting internal, regional, or international events to bring about changes in Lebanon, allowing him to obtain what he could not before?"

In a step that felt wearily familiar, Qatar has also said that it is ready to hold a conference bringing together Lebanon's disputing factions. Doha hosted the conference that ended the last political crisis that erupted last May.

However, for the time being, Safa commented, Lebanon does not need a "Doha II". "We're not quite at that stage yet, since there is still a president," he said.

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