Issue No.1326, 5 January, 2017      03-01-2017 09:42AM ET

The Switzerland of the Middle East?

Could Lebanon become a haven of peace in the Middle East despite the conflicts raging on around it, asks Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

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While the Middle East was becoming swamped in conflicts similar to those of the Thirty Years War of 17th-century Europe, and the crisis in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo was tearing the Arab world apart in a way not seen since the first century of the Islamic epoch, Lebanon was forming a national unity government and the latter was gaining a vote of confidence in parliament in record time.

This was very unusual, and even miraculous. Historically, Lebanon has long been the mirror of events in the region, and regional conflicts have long been reflected in it. This has been especially the case in the Syrian crisis since Lebanon is a historical part of Syria, and sectarian and political divisions in the latter extend to Lebanon.

One of the main players in Syria is the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, a key element of the conflict in Syria and one of the main supporters of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

But one of Hizbullah’s main political rivals in the new Lebanese government, the Future Current, is a main enemy of the Syrian regime, and at the beginning of the Syrian crisis it supported the opposition and its Sunni sympathisers. The Future Current remains sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, if to a lesser degree.

Nonetheless, Lebanese politicians have apparently succeeded in distancing the new government from regional conflicts. It is as if the long-term demand of some Christian Lebanese, especially the Lebanese Phalanges Party, to make Lebanon “the Switzerland of the Middle East” has now come true, at least in terms of Lebanon now looking like a haven of peace even though its population mirrors those of neighbouring countries.

The formation of the new government also did not take much time, and the Lebanese parliament gave it a vote of confidence fewer than two months after Michel Aoun was elected president based on an historic settlement between Aoun and his former rival, the Future Current leader Saad Al-Hariri, in which Aoun asked Al-Hariri to become prime minister and form a government.

The formation of the previous cabinet, headed by Tammam Salam, took nearly one year to achieve, including a month of discussions of government statements. This time round, the composition of Al-Hariri’s cabinet took only a few days – record time when compared to previous Lebanese governments.

Some have described this period as the briefest ever seen in the history of Lebanese governments, especially as the committee in charge accomplished its task in only two sessions. Previously, work could easily go on over multiple sessions and sometimes even miss the constitutional deadline of one month.

As agreed with Aoun, Al-Hariri avoided any controversial language in presenting the programme of his government. Instead of “distancing” the government from the surrounding conflicts, the slogan of Lebanese diplomacy in recent years and one particularly criticised by Al-Assad, Al-Hariri said Lebanon would be “neutral” with regard to regional conflicts, hoping to protect the country from the repercussions of the battles surrounding it.

The phrase was taken from Aoun’s acceptance speech, in which he said that Lebanon should stay out of foreign conflicts and respect the Arab League Charter while adopting an independent foreign policy based on Lebanon’s interests and respect for international law. This, he said, would maintain Lebanon as an oasis of peace and stability.

Cabinet members found middle ground on other sticking points, especially the “army, people and resistance” slogan which Hizbullah has long insisted on. The cabinet statement said that “resistance would not be forthcoming to liberate occupied Lebanese land,” but it confirmed “the right of the Lebanese people to resist the Israeli occupation.”

The new cabinet also did not follow the traditional alliances that have hindered the formation of Lebanon’s governments in the past. Lebanese governments have usually been formed of an alliance between the March 8 Coalition (an ally of Syria) and the March 14 Coalition (Syria’s rival), as well as what is known as the “Centrist Current” which is traditionally close to March 14.

Hizbullah and its allies, including Aoun, would then usually insist that the March 8 Coalition received what is known as the “obstructive third,” meaning that it would have one third of the cabinet seats plus one so that it could block any decisions it did not like and even force the entire cabinet to resign if it wanted.

However, this time around cabinet appointments have been made according to party and sectarian affiliation, while giving priority to the major parties that backed Aoun or signed a settlement with him. In order to accommodate the majority of the country’s political forces, the cabinet has also expanded to 30 seats instead of 24.

The Free Patriotic Current, established by Aoun and currently led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, received the lion’s share of nine seats since it is the second-largest parliamentary bloc, in addition to Aoun’s share of ministers as president.

There then follows the Future Current with six ministers, including the minister of the interior. The Shia groups Hizbullah and Amal have received what they wanted most – that the Ministry of Finance should continue to be under Shia control with an Amal member being appointed minister.

This is a particularly important seat because the minister of finance must sign any executive decision requiring financial allocations in Lebanon, along with the signatures of the Christian Maronite president and the Sunni prime minister.

But the conflict in Syria remains the biggest problem for the new government. While Aoun is an ally of the Syrian regime, Al-Hariri has accused it of assassinating his father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri. Hizbullah has a strong military presence in Syria, and it sends forces and supplies there on a daily basis.

This is a government that must tread a thin line in order not to collapse because of disputes over Syria. It must also work to repair Lebanon’s relationship with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said of Lebanon’s foreign policy that “President Bashar Al-Assad is the president of Syria and is recognised as such by the UN. We support the victory of the Syrian people and their choices. Keeping Lebanon neutral on the Syrian crisis does not mean Lebanon does not have opinions. The Syrian government’s taking control of areas neighbouring Lebanon guarantees some stability.”

At the same time, he said that “the first country President Aoun will visit is Saudi Arabia because relations between the two countries need normalisation.”

Many believe Aoun wants to go to Saudi Arabia first not only to normalise relations but also to avoid criticism over anticipated visits to Syria and Iran. “There is nothing unusual in Aoun visiting Syria,” said State Minister for Presidential Affairs Pierre Raffoul. “The country is on our borders, and we share many common issues. We must cooperate with Syria in the ordinary way in order to return those who have been displaced by the conflict to safe areas.”

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