Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1429, (7 - 13 February 2019)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1429, (7 - 13 February 2019)

Ahram Weekly

New government in Lebanon

After nine months of negotiations a new government has finally emerged in Lebanon, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi


New government in Lebanon
New government in Lebanon

A new Lebanese government headed by Saad Al-Hariri has finally emerged in Beirut after nine months of negotiations, political bickering and haggling over quotas. With 30 ministers representing the country’s major political forces, the cabinet counts four women among its members, a first in Lebanon.

The announcement of the new government comes more than two years after the agreement between rival Lebanese political forces that enabled Michel Aoun to be elected president, with support from his main ally Hizbullah, and Al-Hariri to be named prime minister.

However, Al-Hariri has had to overcome one hurdle after another in order to form a government. His challenges have included disputes over ministerial quotas, the most salient of which was the controversy over the president’s share of cabinet seats.

Aoun insisted that he had a right to the quota allocated to the presidency in addition to the quota accorded to his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Many other forces then strongly objected, arguing that Aoun should only have a right to the president’s quota if he were an independent, as was the case with his predecessor Michel Suleiman.

There followed a clash over Hizbullah’s insistence that the six Sunni MPs close to the Shia group should have a minister to represent them in government. As these MPs were opposed to Al-Hariri, he refused to allow any such seat to be deducted from his quota.

In the end, Aoun agreed to sacrifice one of the ministerial portfolios in his quota, thereby eliminating the last obstacle to forming the government. The new cabinet will now draft its policy statement to submit to parliament ahead of the vote of confidence that according to the Lebanese Constitution should take place within 30 days of the announcement of the government.

The formation of a new government is a prerequisite for Lebanon to receive billions of dollars in grants and loans pledged by the international community to resuscitate its ailing economy.

Last year, Lebanon won pledges exceeding $11 billion in the Cedar Conference held in Paris in April 2018. Al-Hariri acknowledged that the funding pledges required that Lebanon make “bold reforms,” adding that “the funding commitments of the international community and our brother Arabs must be matched by the government’s commitment to reforms and the transparent conduct of business.”

Most international donors have linked their offers of assistance to the implementation of a range of structural and economic reforms in order to stimulate the economy. Economic growth in Lebanon has plunged to around one per cent during the past three years, in contrast to the 9.1 per cent in the three years that preceded the outbreak of the civil war in Syria.

In Lebanon, with its fragile demographic balances, forming a government is a gargantuan task because it requires a consensus between rival sectarian and political forces over how to divide up the established quotas of ministerial portfolios. 

In 2009, it took Al-Hariri five months to form a government, speedy compared to the ten months that it took Tammam Salam following his appointment as prime minister in April 2014.

The composition of the new government has also stirred tensions between Al-Hariri and some of his long-term allies. Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), lashed out against the new government and the policies of its prime minister.

Within hours of the government being announced, Jumblatt said that “the political cordon [around us] will tighten, but we’ll confront it with complete composure.” A fellow member in his party, Wael Abou Faour, designated as minister of industry, went further by charging that the new cabinet was the product of favouritism.

 “We’ll break it, because we are fated to win,” he said. PSP Party Secretary Zafer Nasser called it “the bargain government of this era”, adding that “we will remain firm. We will stand up against deals and corruption.”

According to informed sources, among the causes of Jumblatt’s resentment are his opposition to deals that made it possible for Ghassan Atallah, appointed minister of immigration, to acquire a ministerial post from the Free Patriotic Movement’s quota despite losing in the parliamentary elections in the Chouf region (Jumblatt’s stronghold).

To infuriate Jumblatt further, the Ministry of Refugee Affairs was handed to Saleh Al-Gharib, a representative of Lebanese Democratic Party Chairman Talal Arslan, Jumblatt’s rival in the Druze community and a close ally of Syria. With this appointment, the Lebanese government’s management of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has shifted from the hands of the Future Movement to the Syrian regime’s allies in Lebanon.

Tensions between Al-Hariri and the PSP were reflected in the chill between the PSP’s ministers and the prime minister in a recent cabinet meeting. The appointment of the Democratic Party’s Al-Gharib as a second Druze (alongside the PSP’s Akram Shahib) member in the cabinet’s ten-member committee charged with drafting the policy statement to be submitted to parliament is a precedent that Jumblatt does not want to see repeated.

Al-Gharib’s appointment was evidently made in deference to a request by Gebran Bassil, the president of the Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanon’s current foreign minister.

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, is displeased with the settlement that has led to the formation of the new government, complaining that his differences with the political class in Lebanon have forced his party to pay the price in terms of its share of cabinet seats and the type of portfolios it has received. 

Geagea vowed that he and his party would continue to work to rescue important political and economic concerns from “the clutches of corruption, spurious projects and deals. Nothing will divert us from this choice, no matter how intense the confrontation.”

He said that the bitter experiences of the last nine months had driven the country to a precipice, and this should have compelled all the political forces to meet the challenge with a mentality different to forming a “restoration of confidence” government that had turned into a “wrestling ring” on public services.

“We can smell the stench of corruption, and we will put a stop to it. This government will never advance unless it implements radical reforms,” Geagea said. 

On the question of Washington’s warnings concerning Hizbullah’s role in the new Lebanese government, Geagea said that “we take all international warnings into account. But what is important is that Lebanon is our country, and no country can stand on its two feet on crooked terrain and in parallel with a ‘little state’ that possesses arms and decision-making power.”

The “little state” was an allusion to Hizbullah. “What is also important is that we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge that it is no longer possible for Hizbullah to continue as it is at present. No state can attain its fullest potential with the existence of a surrogate state within it. This is our belief, our conviction, and our cause which we convey to all constitutional institutions,” he said.

However, Geagea said he intended to call on Aoun to congratulate him on the new government. “Our relationship with the president is based on our position with respect to the office of the presidency,” he said.

Geagea’s relationship with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil is another matter, “governed by a convergence or the lack thereof on matters of domestic and foreign questions, such as his [Bassil’s] stance on the attempt to bring Syria back to the Arab league.”

Geagea believes that Bassil has shown “excessive enthusiasm” for Syria’s reintegration, asking “what kind of Syria do they want to restore to the Arab League? Iran’s Syria? Russia’s Syria? Half of Syria is outside of Syria, and the other half is in opposition.” As for Bassil’s stated intention to visit Damascus, Geagea said that “we will oppose it absolutely.”

One of the surprises in the new government is the appointment of four women ministers, one of whom will replace Nohad Al-Machnouk as interior minister. Raya Al-Hassan is now the first woman in the Arab world to hold this position.

According to Sami Nader, director of the Middle East Institute for Strategic Affairs, a think tank, the new government is the product of an agreement between Iran and France. In addition to older controversial issues, it will have to address new ones, he said, most notably related to the reforms discussed at the Cedar Conference last year.

Nader said that he understood the attitudes expressed by the Lebanese Forces and PSP leaders as these two parties had been forced to make the most concessions in the number and quality of their ministerial portfolios.

Foremost among the controversial issues that the new government will be dealing with, he said, was the question of normalisation with Syria, in which political forces pushing towards closer involvement with the Iranian axis will lock horns with those opposed to it.

The dispute over Hizbullah’s weapons will also continue. But the government’s most formidable challenge would be how to design and implement the economic policies that will institute the required reforms, curb expenditure and stimulate growth, Nader said.

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