A disagreement over whether the finance minister should be a Shi’ite Muslim has blocked the formation of a new Lebanese government, forestalling the possibility of international aid after last month’s port explosion that destroyed parts of Beirut.
The powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and smaller Amal party, both Shi’ite, are pressing for a member of their branch of Islam to be awarded the position.
Since 2014, the finance minister, who co-signs decrees with the president and prime minister, has been a Shi’ite. A change would mean the community’s loss of power over major government decision-making.
Lebanon was already in a major economic crisis stemming from crippling foreign debt when it was slammed by the coronavirus pandemic and then the August 4 port explosion, which killed some 200 people, left some 300,000 homeless and brought down the government.
About 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been left at the port for years was blamed for the blast. The caretaker government has promised an investigation.
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country was the colonial power in Lebanon, has called for political reforms and offered to hold an international aid conference after a new Lebanese government is formed.
Lebanese authorities had promised him that a government would be in place by September 15, a date that has come and gone.
The confluence of crises, along with US sanctions, may be causing shifts in Lebanese political allegiances.
“Prime minister-designate Mustapha Adib is consulting various political parties and he apparently sees … [a] finance minister outside the control of both Shi’ite political parties, “Dr. Raphaël Gourrada, an independent Lebanon analyst, told The Media Line.
The Shi’ite fear of losing the Finance Ministry represents a larger problem with Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which mandates that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite.
“It’s… the community identity that is in question now,” Gourrada said.
“Keeping a grip on such a key portfolio is a way for Amal – and mostly Hezbollah – to remain in the political game and be seen as respectable political actors in Lebanese politics,” he explained.
“In Lebanon,” he noted, “it’s never just a question of controlling a government ministry. It has ramifications in the region and internationally.”
Hezbollah, which the US and some other countries have designated a terrorist organization, is becoming increasingly isolated following US sanctions against supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has the Shi’ite group’s support in his almost decade-long war with rebels.
Individual members of Hezbollah and Shi’ite politicians are also targeted. On September 8, the US Treasury Department sanctioned former Lebanese government ministers Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil for supporting the group and for corruption.
Iran, which helps fund Hezbollah and also supports Assad, was targeted by US sanctions after Washington withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, designed to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Gourrada notes that Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who relied on Hezbollah ’s support to obtain his post, recently distanced himself from the group and expressed support for a nonsectarian government.
“This alliance is beginning to be a liability for Aoun because he sees that siding with Hezbollah , an ally of the Damascus regime, hinders his ability to appear to be a strong leader and to be part of the political situation,” the analysts said. “Maybe now he is realizing there is more to gain from taking a step back from the Shi’ite alliance.”
Anne Gadel, a Middle East expert who regularly consults for Institut Montaigne, a nonprofit and nonpartisan French think tank, says the September 15 deadline promised to Macron was missed because the interim government is run by politicians who are part of the sectarian “status quo” that is an integral part of Lebanon’s problems.
“There were really high odds that they would not be able to form a government within the deadline,” Gadel told The Media Line.
“I think it’s a setback for Macron’s diplomacy in Lebanon, but we should have known from the beginning that it was quite impossible with the elite who are known for blocking processes and benefitting from the status quo,” she continued.
“We had hoped the shock of the [port] blast and Macron’s initiative would move the political elite,” she added, “but we can see now [that] the confessional parties are taking over the process as usual.”
The promise of crucial financial aid does not seem to have motivated officials to put aside their differences, Gadel notes.
“The financial incentives are unfortunately not enough because this elite is completely disconnected from the people’s needs and Lebanon’s needs. They are really just concerned about their own interests,” she said.
“This is why the situation is alarming,” she went on. “You don’t have statesmen – you have sectarian leaders that take advantage of the system.”
Lebanese protesters, who have spent months demonstrating against the current political system, also oppose the interim government.
“It’s like being on the Titanic while watching the kitchen crew fighting each other to decide who gets to steer toward the iceberg,” Roudy Hanna, a protester from Beirut told The Media Line.