Lebanon gets a cabinet

19 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

After five months of fierce negotiations, Lebanon finally has a cabinet. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri announced Monday that the final details had been worked out and that parties had a come to an agreement.

Lebanon’s deep sectarian divides provided ample obstacles during the negotiation process, but many thought that the biggest barriers to a national unity government would come, not come from within Lebanon, but without.

Countries like Iran, Syria and Saudia Arabia  hold significant influence in Lebanon. Iran is the close patron of Hizballah, Rafik Hariri is close with the Saudi royal family and even has dual Saudi citizenship, and Syria remains a big player in Lebanon four years  after it’s decades long occupation ended in 2005.

Iran never appeared to stand in the way to the formation of a cabinet – at least not publicly – but it took a high profile summit to bury the hatchet between Damascus and Riyadh. The two have been at odds for the last few years, especially since the assassination of Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s father, in a car bomb in 2005.

Like his son, Saad Hariri was also very close with the Saudi Royal family. Often  described as a larger than life figure, Hariri represented tremendous Saudi financial interests in Lebanon. His death dealt a deep blow to Saudi influence there, and many believed that Syria was behind the hit.

It seemed as though the lack of cooperation between the regimes in Damascus and Riyadh would translate directly to political stagnation in Beirut. That is why many found it so encouraging for Lebanon when the leaders of the two nations decided to meet last month and announced that neither would do anything to thwart the formation of a cabinet in Lebanon.

As for Tehran, it was largely quiet for its part. Iran had unexpectedly stumbled into a political turmoil after its elections and it seemed as though it had more pressing matters to tend to than to interfere in Lebanon to any significant degree. This was reflected in Hizballah’s cooperative stance throughout. Hizballah had agreed to the 15-10-5 format (15 cabinet seats for the majority, 10 seats for the opposition, and 5 seats for the president) early on, and they had made it evident  that, once the other parties had agreed to a deal,  Hizballah would not stand in  the way.

So with the external players agreeing to stay out of the way, the task was now left to the Lebanese. Some analysts believed that the external influences had been a stabilizing force in Lebanon, and that without their influence, it was unclear whether the Lebanese politicians could accomplish anything when left on their own.

Indeed, one of the final sticking points impeding the formation of the cabinet was Michael Aoun, the Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. He wanted his son-in-law Gabran Bassil to takeover the telecommunications seat, but Hariri rejected this demand on the grounds that Bassil did not win the parliamentary seat in his district.  As time went by and Aoun refused to budge, the other obstacle to the formation of a cabinet seemed to melt away leaving only the disagreement between Aoun and Hariri. Eventually the two sides compromised, with Bassil getting a cabinet seat, just not the particular one that he wanted.

When the fight came down to this, neither side showed any sign of giving in to the other, because nobody wanted to lose face. It seemed like the last month of negotiations came down to this one single issue. But eventually Hariri and Aoun found a middle ground and were able to get past the last hurdle.

When the news was announced, the international community was quick to offer its support, albeit with qualifiers. The United States, France, and the United Nations offered praise for the progress  in Beirut, but it was immediately followed by wishes for adherence to UN resolutions and the disarmament of Hizballah.

But is this a constructive issue for Lebanon? Let us put aside the fact that the Lebanese Armed Forces are still very weak and that Hizballah is still the only entity in Lebanon capable of fending off an attack from Israel, and let us focus on what Lebanon has to gain through Hizballah giving up its weapons.

The governments of most sovereign nations maintain a monopoly on the use of force within their borders. Lebanon however, as the result of a very long civil war and an even longer occupation by Israel, has developed a minority militia that is entrenched in its society and territory. Hizballah began as a resistance, but it eventually evolved into a militant, socio-political religious phenomenon, which is highly influential amongst the nation’s Shiites (who make up over a third of the population of Lebanon).

Hizballah is a state within a state and any attempt to disarm it, such as in May 2008, is met with extreme resistance. Another attempt now could be more destabilizing for Lebanon. While it’s clear that disarming Hizballah is important for the international community, especially the United States and Israel, it may not be as much of an issue to the Lebanese.  It’s quite possible that the average Lebanese would want  Hizballah to disarm, if only they could flip a switch and make it be so. But in reality it’s not that easy.

The issue is a non-starter for Hizballah, and if it came up during the formation of the cabinet, it’s certain that the whole process would have been derailed. That is why Mr. Hariri tabled the issue for a future date. This way he can get on with forming a government and maybe, if the time ever comes when he is strong enough to do so, he can take the issue up again. But until then, it just doesn’t mean as much to the Lebanese as it does the the West. So for now the issue is on hold indefinitely.

Also, some analysts are presenting the majority and the opposition in Lebanon as being cosmopolitan & liberal vs anti-Israel & anti-West, respectively. This may be an accurate characterization, but it misses the point. These ideas are not necessarily diametrically opposed to each other. Many Lebanese still harbor deep resentment towards Israel, and suspicion towards the West, particularly the United States. But many of these same people are proud of the modernity and the openness of Lebanon, especially when it come to business. These characteristics represent a huge cross-section of Lebanese,  and it is here where any progress will be made by the new government.

So now the real work begins: using the new unity government to improve the lives of the Lebanese people. The infrastructure of Lebanon needs to be improved. Corruption needs to be weeded out amongst the bureaucracy. The internet in Lebanon is still dreadfully slow.  Lebanon has hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. The army is weak. Beirut is severely congested with traffic. The national debt is among the worst in the world.

The list daunting, but the problems are solvable. For now congratulations continue to roll in and  many challenges lay ahead.

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