Factional horse trading slows naming of Lebanese cabinet

Geagea is vehemently anti-Hezbollah and extremely critical of its involvement in the Syrian conflict, which has received the blessing of Aoun.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Competing voices. Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil (R) talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) during a cabinet meeting in Beirut, on March 12. (Reuters)
Competing voices. Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil (R) talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) during a cabinet meeting in Beirut, on March 12. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Creating a new cabinet is becoming exceedingly difficult for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In a country sharply divided by deep sectarian and political lines, Hariri needs to be extremely cautious about whom he chooses for the 30-member cabinet, careful not to cross either enemies or friends.

He only returned to power after a 5-year absence in 2016 after supporting Michel Aoun’s bid for the presidency in exchange for being named prime minister.

The first hurdle in pulling together a new cabinet lies with Aoun, however, and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), headed by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who is the country’s minister of foreign affairs.

The FPM is part of a wider parliamentary group, called the March 8 Alliance, which is strongly backed by the Syrians. In addition to the Foreign Ministry, it controls important portfolios such as defence, economy, justice and presidential affairs. The alliance won 24 seats in May’s elections, making it the largest Christian bloc in the Lebanese parliament.

Aoun is suggesting giving one cabinet post for every four seats any bloc has in parliament, meaning no less than six portfolios for his FPM. Aoun is also demanding a share for himself as president, independent of his share as head of a parliamentary bloc, which could raise the number of Aounists in government to 13.

That is strongly being challenged by the second biggest Christian bloc — the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea. Although Geagea supported Aoun’s election in 2016, rivalries run deep between the two Christian leaders, who waged a bloody war against each other in 1988.

Geagea is vehemently anti-Hezbollah and extremely critical of its involvement in the Syrian conflict, which has received the blessing of Aoun. The two men are challenging each other for Christian leadership and are bickering over what each of them gets in the Hariri cabinet. Geagea is demanding the post of deputy prime minister, in addition to his present share (information, public health and social affairs).

Aoun is refusing to concede the post of deputy prime minister, saying that, although it was given to the LF in 2016, this was an exception. He says the position ought to be given to the FPM.

Geagea has hinted that he would be willing to trade the deputy prime minister post, trading it for the Ministry of Defence, currently occupied by Yacoub Sarraf, an Aounist. Aoun and Bassil say they won’t budge on the Defence Ministry.

Political analyst Fadi Akoum said: “It is unlikely that the deputy premiership will go the Lebanese Forces. On the contrary, the president will do his utmost to keep it in his hands, to use it as a pressure card should political tensions arise, reaching the point of where the prime minister is forced to step down.”

Aoun’s Shia allies have firmly secured their share of the Hariri cabinet, which includes two posts for Hezbollah (industry and sports and youth), and three for the Amal Movement (finance, agriculture and state development).

However, if Aoun’s formula is accepted, Hezbollah is entitled to a larger share, given that it controls 13 seats in parliament, while Amal heads a bloc of 17 MPs. They are demanding two additional seats — not for Shias but for their Sunni allies, suggesting Tripoli MP Faisal Karami and former Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Murad as potential ministers. Karami and Murad are strongly backed by Damascus.

This time it is Hariri who is objecting, saying that members of the Sunni opposition only have ten seats in parliament and, thus, are not entitled to cabinet representation. Amal’s bid is also being challenged by Aoun, who fell out with his former allies last year after they accused him of despotism for signing off a decree without consulting with his Finance Minister, a member of Amal, and bypassing Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal.

Hariri’s Future Bloc has no intention of sharing power with Sunnis who are not part of the prime minister’s following. They control six posts, including prime minister and the strategic Ministry of Interior. If Hezbollah and Amal were to get their way, one of their seats would go to the Sunni opposition.

Another hurdle is the Druze representation. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt did not run for parliament but oversaw the election of his son, who heads a bloc of nine seats. They are technically entitled to two portfolios and presently control education and human rights affairs.

Aoun is trying to force them to relinquish one position to Emir Talal Arslan, another heavyweight Druze, who is allied to the Syrians. This has created bad blood between Jumblatt and Aoun, who were bitter enemies during the civil war. Jumblatt never trusted Aoun, especially after he cuddled up to Hezbollah and the Syrians in 2006. Last June, he tweeted that the Aoun Era has been a “failure,” triggering a backlash from the Aounists.

Hariri needs to accommodate all these powerful players before his cabinet sees the light. Even if it does, there are other obstacles.

What will Hariri do about the Syrian refugee crisis? He wants them to stay while Aoun and Hezbollah want them to return to Syria.

What will he say about the arms of Hezbollah? A condition for joining any cabinet, after all, is to pledge to “protect the arms of the resistance.” Hariri included it in his cabinet formation statement when he was named prime minister in 2009 but Hezbollah walked out on his cabinet in 2011 during a visit to the White House.

He said it again, very unwillingly, in 2016 and realises that to make it through a third time, he needs to say those words, verbatim, otherwise Hezbollah will never work with him.