No end in sight for Lebanon's cabinet dilemma

Pro-West camp learns post-election jubilation was premature.

Hizbullah supporter 248.88 (photo credit: )
Hizbullah supporter 248.88
(photo credit: )
It has been two months since Sa'ad Hariri was named prime minister-designate of Lebanon's new government, but his first task in that role - the formation of a cabinet - remains incomplete. Now, most analysts say formation is unlikely before the end of Ramadan in late September. An apparent thaw in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia seemed to augur well for the cabinet-forming process, but two months later the path is fraught with difficulties. Lebanon's last government, born out of the 2005 popular anti-Syrian "Cedar Revolution," was plagued by cabinet dysfunction. The opposition bloc, a coalition of parties lead by Hizbullah, walked out of the cabinet in 2006 and paralyzed the government until May 2008, when clashes broke out between Hizbullah fighters and pro-government forces in West Beirut. So it is with considerable trepidation that this government's cabinet is being formed. It is looking for strict consensus with its polarized stakeholders, and it is attempting to work through some conflicting demands. One of these demands is the issue known as the "blocking third" veto. The winning formula that emerged was "15-10-5," that is, 15 seats for the pro-Western March 14 majority bloc, which Hariri heads, 10 seats for the opposition March 8 bloc, and five seats for a centrist bloc under the purview of President Michel Suleiman, a consensus figure appointed last year. In a strict sense this kept a "blocking third" out of the hands of the opposition yet provided a path to the possibility of de facto veto by assigning one of the presidential centrist block seats to Hizbullah. "Had it been a 15-10-5 cabinet, the president would have been more powerful," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "But now more people are joining him in the swing position in the cabinet and so will weaken his position." Earlier this month, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt announced he would be pulling his Progressive People Party from its alliance with the majority March 14 bloc, citing the alliance's anti-Syrian bent as obsolete. "Jumblatt is trying to get back in favor with the Syrians," says Salem. Jumblatt's politics are guided by a desire to preserve the Druse community, and this recent political realignment is driven by a conviction that Syria will have a more steadfast role in Lebanon moving forward. Either way, his move has taken the wind out of the sails of the March 14 bloc, which emerged triumphant from the June 7 election with a 14-parliamentary seat margin over the Hizbullah-led opposition. Jumblatt's disengagement brings 11 parliamentary seats and three cabinet positions away from March 14, collapsing its majority, and makes the the Progressive People Party a swing group, wavering between March 14 and March 8, both of which will depend on his bloc to push through or veto legislation. "It seems like we may be moving into a familiar holding pattern, with all parties waiting to see how broader regional dynamics develop before committing to a political strategy at home," says Elias Muhanna, a political analyst and author of the popular Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki. "Touchy subjects like Hizbullah's resistance against Israel will be avoided or tabled until some future date as a way of buying short-term stability." Another complicating factor in the cabinet formation process has been Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in the opposition bloc allied with Hizbullah. Aoun had expected to fare much better in June's election and it was in large part the Christian voters who defected from his party that enabled March 14 to win by such a margin. Now he is slowing up progress by making demands Hariri and his camp are unwilling to accommodate, such as naming his son-in-law Gibran Basil as minister of telecommunications in the new cabinet. Basil is the minister of telecommunications in the current care-taker government, but he lost his parliamentary seat in June's vote, a fact that disqualifies him from a cabinet nomination, says Hariri's camp. Hizbullah has remained more or less silent throughout. "When Hizbullah wants to delay things, Aoun is a convenient loud person to slow down the process and throw up smoke screens," says Salem. "And when they are ready for things to move again, they will." If Hariri fails to form a cabinet, he may step aside and offer the job (and the role of prime minister) to someone else. The cabinet stalemate could yield several more twists, but most analysts believe one will be eventually formed. Now the question is what shapes and contortions consensus will take in the newly configured Lebanese political landscape once the cabinet is formed and government kicks into action. The March 14 post-election jubilation was premature and now a much more fluid (and volatile) coalition government is taking shape. "There is no parliamentary bloc that holds a majority anymore, so if Jumblatt plus March 8 pull out of the cabinet, that's the ball game," says Muhanna. "There is far less centripetal force holding these groupings together anymore, so the potential for a a government to fall is higher."