Deadlock in Lebanon over representation of Sunnis in government

Nasrallah insists on two Sunni blocs in parliament, while saying that he and Speaker Nabih Berri will relinquish none of their Shia seats.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri arrives for a news conference at his official residence in Beirut.  (Dalati & Nohra/dpa)
“Father of Sunnis.” Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri arrives for a news conference at his official residence in Beirut. (Dalati & Nohra/dpa)

BEIRUT - “I am the father of Sunnis,” boomed Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri on November 14, replying to claims by Hezbollah that he no longer solely represents Lebanese Sunnis.

Hariri insists on giving no cabinet seat to members of the Hezbollah-backed “Sunni opposition,” who claim to have a parliamentary bloc of ten members of parliament.

By norm, this entitles them to one or two seats in government. Hariri insists on giving them none, however, saying that they have six, not ten, seats in the chamber of deputies, leaving Sunni representation exclusively in the hands of his Future Movement.

“I refuse to accept (accusations) that Saad Hariri is triggering sectarian tension,” he said, referring to himself in third person, adding: “Our (Future) Movement is cross-sectarian.”

His father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, assassinated in 2005, was universally regarded as a

heavyweight Sunni politician throughout the Arab world.

By appointing himself “father” of the community, Saad Hariri is making claims to his father’s inheritance in leadership of “Sunni Lebanon.” His opponents say he cannot monopolise the community and needs to accept power sharing with Sunnis who are not members of his political orbit. His backers see Hezbollah as trying to have its own Sunni political faction.

Hariri’s news conference came after a televised appearance by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who bluntly said the Hariri cabinet will never see the light unless the “Sunni opposition” is adequately represented.

This single demand has obstructed the formation of the new Lebanese government for months, topped with a Hezbollah condition that Hariri re-establishes ties with Syria. Hariri insists on caving in to neither demand, saying: “Let them find a prime minister other than me.”

The Shias of Hezbollah hold the industry and sports portfolios and will likely get the Ministry of Health and their allies in the Amal Movement have the ministries of finance, agriculture and state development.

If they are so determined to bring the Sunni opposition onboard, Hariri said, then they ought to surrender one of their seats, rather than seek to accommodate them from his own parliamentary bloc.

The “Sunni opposition” is composed of two heavyweights who say they have been sidelined by the Hariri family, which swept the Sunni street after Rafik Hariri’s rise to power in the early 1990s. Rafik Hariri’s charisma, leadership traits and the wealth at his disposal made him an overnight star for Lebanese Sunnis. Hereditary political families such as the Salams, Bayhums, Itanis and Karamis were forced to either line up after him or step aside.

One of the names challenging Saad Hariri is Faisal Karami, 46, scion of a leading political family in Tripoli. His grandfather, Abdul Hamid Karami, was one of the champions of the anti-colonial struggle, hailed as a founding father of Lebanon, who became prime minister in 1945. Both his children Rashid and Omar (Faisal’s father) rotated as prime minister as well, before, during and after the civil war.

Omar was prime minister when Hariri was killed in 2005 and Rashid was killed while in office when a bomb exploded in his helicopter in 1987, planted by none other than Samir Geagea, a staunch ally of Saad Hariri. In 2004, Hezbollah insisted on making Karami minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati. His opponents called him the “sixth Shia minister.”

Another heavyweight is Abdul Rahim Mourad, 76, nicknamed “king of the Bekaa,” who served in numerous cabinet posts, including higher education and defence. He is the founder and chairman of the Lebanese International University and a good friend both of Iran and Syria.

Less prominent figures in the “Sunni opposition” are Beirut MP Ali Taraboulsi, Bekaa MP Alwaleed Sukariyeh, Dannieh MP Jihad al-Samad and Kassem Hashem, a dentist from southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Visibly absent from the bloc is Mikati, who won four seats in Tripoli last May, and Beiruti tycoon Fouad Makhzoumi, a political independent. Both said that they refused to join the opposition because it has been labelled as “Sunni,” claiming that they stand for all Lebanese and not just Muslim Sunnis.

Nasrallah insists on two Sunni blocs in parliament, while saying that he and Speaker Nabih Berri will relinquish none of their Shia seats. The Druze are represented by two blocs, one led by Walid Jumblatt and another by Emir Talal Arslan. The Shias are represented by two blocs, Amal and Hezbollah.

The Sunnis deserve two blocs, Nasrallah claims, and will not rest until that is achieved. Otherwise, they will refuse to join Hariri’s government, eventually forcing Hariri to either step down or go ahead with a weak one-colour cabinet. When they walked out on his government in early 2011, it crashed — while he was in an Oval Office meeting with US President Barak Obama. Hariri doesn’t want that to happen again.

As to a possible link between the Lebanese crisis and US sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah, Hariri said: “There is true reality that Lebanon will face against the background of US sanctions.” However, he added: “Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese people and we respect that.”