Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2011
Issue No. 1052
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Induced birth?

After a typically drawn-out period of labour, Lebanon's new cabinet has been born with Syria believed to have acted as midwife, reports Lucy Fielder in Beirut

After a painful five-month period of labour, Lebanon's new cabinet was born on Monday, with few from either side of Lebanon's political divide disputing signs of Syrian midwifery. Prime Minister designate Najib Mikati announced the formation of the new government at the presidential Baabda Palace in Beirut, calling it "a government for the whole of Lebanon", a description with which about half of Lebanon is bound to disagree.

Mikati's new cabinet is formed entirely of ministers from the Hizbullah-dominated 8 March Alliance and technocrats. Ministers from the group resigned in January, bringing the last government down, before Hizbullah went on to gain a parliamentary majority through the defection of Druze leader and kingmaker Walid Jumblatt.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was the first to congratulate Mikati on the new cabinet. Despite the new prime minister's good relations with both Syria and Saudi Arabia and the fact that he is seen as relatively neutral by both, this is a cabinet peopled with Syrian allies.

The Western-backed anti-Syrian 14 March bloc, led by former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri has declined to join what it sees as "Hizbullah's government". Lebanon is split as ever down the middle over issues such as relations with Syria, enmity with Israel and Shia group Hizbullah's weapons arsenal.

Fares Soueid, head of the 14 March bloc, said that Lebanon was now a "hostage" to Iran and Syria, which back Hizbullah.

"Lebanon's cabinet is in Syria's hands," said political science professor Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut (AUB). "This cabinet reflects one thing, which is that Al-Assad is in defiant mood and has terminated contacts with Saudi Arabia."

Lebanon's sectarian system allocates ministerial portfolios by sect, which, critics say, can prompt months of horse-trading in forming a government. Michel Aoun, Hizbullah's key Christian ally, fought for a strong share of seats in the new government, and his bloc won ten out of a total of 30.

More than a third of the posts have been appointed by Mikati, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman or Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, in the latter's new incarnation as a centrist. That means, Mikati says, that Hizbullah cannot "act unilaterally" in a coalition cabinet.

Last week, Jumblatt met Al-Assad in Damascus, which Khashan, like most people in Lebanon, believes to be a sign of increased Syrian pressure.

On Monday, Nabih Berri, a Shia leader, renounced one of his Shia seats in the cabinet to a pro-Syrian Sunni, Faisal Karami. The shift by Berri, who is also close to Damascus, was taken as a sign that the Syrian regime had decided that enough was enough and a new cabinet should be formed.

Meanwhile anti-regime protests and the crackdown against them have escalated in Syria, and last week saw what many believed to be signs of a limited armed insurgency in the Syrian town of Jisr Al-Shughur, although details are still unclear.

Ending the political vacuum on its western flank is one way that the Syrian regime can reduce the pressure of the demonstrations.

"Syria was keen to have a government in place in order to ensure any spill-over into Lebanon will be minimal," said Karim Makdisi, assistant professor of political studies at AUB.

Syrian refugees and dissidents crossing the porous border into Lebanon are also a concern for Damascus, as is the reported flow of weapons the other way. Syria has also accused members of Al-Hariri's Future bloc of interference in the country's affairs, something which they have denied.

Although considered Hizbullah's cabinet by critics, the group in fact only holds two ministerial portfolios out of a total of 30. Furthermore, the Shia bloc in the new government has also given one of its seats under the quota system to a Sunni ally.

"That's a signal from Hizbullah that yes, they're in the government, but they're not interested in ruling the country and would rather give their ministries to their allies," Makdisi said.

On matters Hizbullah deems critical to its survival, such as attempts to undermine its ability to fight Israel, Lebanon's relations with Syria and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) currently investigating the 2005 killing of Saad Al-Hariri's father Rafik, the group has shown in the past that it will use its clout where it sees fit, regardless of the government in place.

Many expect that the Hague-based STL will issue indictments in the killing over the coming months. Hizbullah has said it expects some of its members to be named, raising fears of heightened tensions between Al-Hariri's Sunni community and the Shia, who overwhelmingly support either Hizbullah or Berri's allied Amal Party.

Hizbullah resigned from Al-Hariri's national unity government in late January because he would not commit to disassociating Lebanon from the possible indictments.

However, the group said in February that it now believes the indictment issue to be "dead", and many agree that it has been overtaken by events in the region and wrong footed by its pre-emptive strike on the last government.

If members of Hizbullah are indicted by the Hague-based court, no power in Lebanon comes close to having the capacity to make the arrests.

"It's the political ramifications that Hizbullah is concerned about," said Makdisi. "It's about not giving legitimacy to any indictment that comes out, whether by officially ignoring it or by condemning international interference in Lebanon's affairs."

All eyes, especially in the west, will now be on ministerial statements to ascertain the new government's stance on the STL. Mikati has already said that Lebanon will abide by its international commitments, a clear reference to its agreement to cooperate with the court.

Makdisi expects the forthcoming ministerial statement to echo that sentiment. "There'll be a team of lawyers working on making it as vague as possible, leaving the details to be worked out later by the government itself," he said.

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