Lebanon caught between real change and power brokers - analysis

President, prime minister-designate tangle over forming a government

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
After initial optimism over the formation of a new government in Lebanon, President Michel Aoun has objected to what he called Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s “solo decision-making” in nominating cabinet members, especially the Christian ministers, without first consulting with him.
Hariri denied he was bypassing the president in assembling the Council of Ministers, the executive body of Lebanon which is presided over by the prime minister and is traditionally comprised of an equal number of Christian and Muslim ministers.
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The prime minister-designate’s office issued a statement on Monday saying that in their second meeting on the subject, Hariri received a list of candidates from the president, “from which the four names of the Christian candidates were chosen.”
In response, the Lebanese Presidency tweeted, “President Aoun’s objection was based on the method of distributing portfolios to sects, and not the specific proposed names.”
Aoun tasked Hariri on October 22 with forming a government. If Hariri succeeds in his mission, he will head his third government since 2009.
Michel Abou Najem, a research coordinator at the Beirut-based Futuristic Studies Institute, told The Media Line the dispute between Aoun and Harari was over who would name the ministers and whether the prime minister-designate, a Sunni Muslim as required under Lebanon’s system of government, would choose the Christian ministers or not, and over the role of the president, a Maronite Christian as required under Lebanon’s sectoral system.
Abou Najem said that previous reports of a positive atmosphere in forming the government were spread by the Hariri team, to put the blame on the president in case anything goes wrong.
“The main issue remains, will the prime minister-designate employ a uniform standard in dealing with all the forces that will make up this government? Or will he pursue a ‘political infiltration,’ an attempt to restore his allies to power at the expense of other forces and the Lebanese presidency as well,” Abou Najem said.
The general atmosphere in the country indicates that in choosing his cabinet, Hariri would, as he has done in the past, take into consideration the demands of the so-called Shiite duo − Hizbullah and the Amal movement − in terms of the Finance Ministry, he continued. “The same goes for the Progressive Socialist Party,” which is Hizbullah-allied and Druze-dominated, “and naturally for the Sunni component” of the Council of Ministers, he said.
Abou Najem criticized Hariri for not including Aoun in choosing the Christian ministers. “There’s a huge problem in principle, as this contradicts the spirit of the National Reconciliation Accord,” the 1989 Taif Agreement that provided the basis for ending the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War.
He said it would be wrong to continue with the same old methods and to assign ministries to the same powers that have ruled the country since the Taif Accord, and not only because of the sectarian issue.
“Their experience in managing the country has entrenched the approach of corruption and plunder, and it doesn’t encourage us to approve his [Hariri’s] choices, as he was part of this system and bears responsibility for it,” Abou Najem said.
He added that the Lebanese president’s powers are very limited, and Hariri wants to further reduce them. “No one will accept this way of dealing by Prime Minister-designate Hariri,” he said.
Based on the Taif Accord, the most recent amendment to the Lebanese constitution, the country is governed by a power-sharing system aimed at guaranteeing political representation to all of the country’s 18 recognized sects. The Lebanese government should have representation from all the religious groups, including the three largest: Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, under the accord.
The parliament is split evenly between Christians and Muslims and proportionally divided among the denominations within each religion. Government posts and public sector positions are also divided among the sects. And just as the president must always be a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of parliament must be a Shiite.
This system has created entrenched divisions among all 18 recognized religious sects.
Ali Amin, a Lebanese analyst and journalist who writes for the London-based, pan-Arab Al-Arab newspaper, told The Media Line the power-sharing system is not the problem, since the main dispute is between two ideas: having the political powers name the ministers, or choosing independent ministers without regard to politics or sect.
“And this situation relates to the [recent] French proposal for a new government composed of independent figures, unlike the previous selection process for government ministers,” Amin said.
He clarified that the conflict between Aoun and Hariri came about because, in addition to selecting the Muslim ministers, Harari named the Christian ministers, whom the president should choose. “But, everyone knows that selecting the ministers wasn’t done by Hariri, but has been coordinated with the French,” he said.
“Hariri can’t say that the French chose the ministers, but the president can say that he [Aoun] didn’t choose any of them,” Amin continued.
He said that Aoun wanted to name a third of the cabinet, because it would enable him to veto important moves, because decisions in the Council of Ministers require a two-thirds majority.
The traditional controlling powers in the country still have not been persuaded to accept a government of independent personalities, Amin said. “The Lebanese people have made it clear that they want an independent government that isn’t linked to the political powers, something different from what has led to this crisis” that is both economic and political.
These controlling powers understand that any new approach to solving the country’s problems will necessarily reduce their power. “The matter isn’t directly related to the Lebanese people,” he said. The traditional power brokers “have managed to suppress them to a certain extent. It’s linked to [parties] abroad, which have made real and serious change a condition for helping the country financially,” he also said.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut immediately after the devastating port explosion in August. He returned in early September and announced an initiative, stipulating the formation of a government that would undertake reform according to a specific program, in return for financial assistance from the international community.
Lebanese citizens have been suffering from a suffocating dollar liquidity crisis, one of the factors behind the ongoing October Revolution protests that began in October 2019, triggered by a planned new tax on the use of internet-based communications programs such as WhatsApp, and then widened to express deep dissatisfaction with economic mismanagement, corruption and sectarianism. This pushed then-prime minister Hariri to submit his resignation on Oct. 29, 2019, and the formation of a government last January by Hasan Diab, who resigned in the wake of the port explosion.
Ayham al-Ahmar, an analyst who has a doctorate in economics and health administration, told The Media Line that whether or not a new government is formed, nothing will change in terms of Lebanon’s financial crisis, which has been going on for years.
“No one, including the governor of the central bank, knows how to end the financial crisis in Lebanon. And that’s to be expected when you don’t have any planning for any economic project in the entire country,” he said.
Based on the way the new government is being formed, it would aim to rescue the economic situation of the country through the politics of austerity and political subordination “to international axes that control the global and regional arena,” Ahmar said.
Lebanon’s economy has depended on aid money from non-profit organizations funded by the US Agency for International Development and the United Nations Development Program, in addition to the aid provided to the Lebanese army, he explained. “It’s the only source of money for Lebanon,” he said.
If people do find jobs, the salary does not cover their daily living expenses, Ahmar explained. “You can find job posts in the medical field now,” he added.
Amid a suffocating economy, tens of thousands of Lebanese have lost their jobs or at least part of their income. Nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, and economic experts say the middle class is increasingly affected.
Beirut may soon be unable to provide sufficient wheat, electricity or internet services, because it does not have the foreign currency to pay foreign providers.