Anger simmers in Lebanon over government impasse

Behind-the-scenes, Hezbollah said that its demands will not end with the naming of a Sunni minister.
Sunday 06/01/2019
A Lebanese man shouts slogans during a protest against the months-long failure of rival political factions to agree on forming a new government, December 23. (dpa)
Sparks flying. A Lebanese man shouts slogans during a protest against the months-long failure of rival political factions to agree on forming a new government, December 23. (dpa)

BEIRUT - Lebanese parties and civil society organisations plan a series of nationwide protests in January, objecting to the chronic government crisis that has dragged on since last May.

The first action is a strike organised by the Businessmen Association, followed by the so-called Lebanese Yellow Vests. On January 12, a sit-in is to take place at the gates of the Ministry of Labour, followed by two Communist Party-led demonstrations, scheduled for Beirut and other Lebanese cities, including Hezbollah’s home base in the Bekaa Valley.

Members of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s March 14 Alliance blame the crisis on Hezbollah, whose secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, stated last summer that he would not endorse a government unless his Sunni allies were accommodated with one or two portfolios.

This is a novelty in Lebanese politics. Previously, Nasrallah’s only condition for joining a cabinet was that the prime minister include a clause in his government policy, pledging to “embrace and protect arms of the resistance.” Every prime minister since the civil war has abided by that rule, including Saad Hariri and his father Rafik.

By norm, every parliamentary bloc is entitled to one cabinet post per five MPs. Nasrallah was referring to a bloc of six MPs, known as the “Sunni Opposition,” led by ex-ministers Faisal Karami and Abdulrahim Murad. Hariri has persistently refused to cave on this demand, claiming that their bloc was too small to merit government office, which if granted, would break his Future Party’s monopoly over Sunni representation.

The Hariri team holds seven posts in government. Hezbollah and its allies in the Amal Movement control six. Hariri said this request was not on Hezbollah’s list of conditions when he was named prime minister last spring.

Murad — a former defence minister and wealthy businessman — argued that he and his allies deserve to stand in the cabinet, asking why Shias had two blocs in the chamber (Amal and Hezbollah) and so did the Druze (represented by Walid Jumblatt and Emir Talal Arslan) and the Christians (represented by the Free Patriotic Movement of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea).

Hariri agreed to give them one seat — but not from his share — saying that it ought to be taken from that of Hezbollah’s ally, Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The Aounists control eight seats in the caretaker government, which if combined with their allies, would total 11. They hold powerful portfolios such as foreign affairs, justice, economy and defence. Hezbollah and its allies control agriculture, finance and state development.

The Hariri team suggested that Aoun name a Sunni figure as minister of presidential affairs, currently earmarked for Pierre Rafoul, a biographer of the president and ranking member of the Free Patriotic Movement.

The proposal was rejected by Bassil — Aoun’s son-in-law — who fears that any concession would be at his personal expense, given that he stands as “shadow president,” in light of his father-in-law’s advanced age, and aims at becoming a “shadow prime minister” as well, through a majority hold in the cabinet. The Free Patriotic Movement has already conceded, he argued, surrendering the post of deputy prime minister to the Lebanese Forces.

Aoun in December suggested naming his friend Jawad Adra, a Sunni technocrat who heads a leading polling company, as the additional Sunni minister, hoping that would appease Nasrallah and the “Sunni Opposition.”

He was willing to give a seat from the presidential share to facilitate the process, saying that Hariri’s lot would stand unaffected. They rejected him, however, saying Adra was an outsider who doesn’t share their political programme or background.

Behind-the-scenes, Hezbollah said that its demands will not end with the naming of a Sunni minister. They insist that Hariri’s cabinet will only pass if the prime minister mends bridges with Damascus and ends his vocal support for the Syrian opposition.

When returning to power in 2016, Hariri spoke of “neutrality” in the Syrian crisis, refusing to engage with Damascus, at any level. Ministers in his cabinet from Hezbollah and Amal ignored him, paying numerous visits to Damascus, which made Hariri look weak before his own constituency.

That hard-line position will have to change if his allies in the Gulf re-establish diplomatic ties with Damascus. The United Arab Emirates has reopened its embassy in Damascus and relations are thawing with Kuwait and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia will make or break the Arab rapprochement with Syria and, if it happens, Hariri will have to either follow suit or step down.

Hezbollah is pressuring officials to invite Syria to an economic summit January 19-20 in Beirut. Their ally, Speaker Nabih Berri, has made it clear that the summit will not pass without Syria.

Parties loyal to the March 14 Alliance warned of repercussions of such invitation, particularly if made without the consent of the Arab League. The more Hariri’s March 14 Alliance insists, the more Hezbollah will obstruct the formation of the government.