Lebanese cabinet standoff means more trouble to come

If Lebanon’s cabinet dilemma was not enough trouble, US sanctions on two Hezbollah lawmakers presented further challenges to the state.
Saturday 13/07/2019
A battle for control. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, last February. (AFP)
A battle for control. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, last February. (AFP)

Lebanon has been caught up in the aftermath of a deadly clash on Mount Lebanon between supporters of Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who leads the Progressive Party, and supporters of the pro-Syrian Druze MP Talal Arslan.

The incident, which came against the backdrop of a popular Druze protest movement against Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil’s visit to the Aley region of Mount Lebanon, ended in a gunfight that killed two members of Arslan’s clan. The local Druze community had been embittered towards Bassil because of his role in stoking tensions there and seeking to revoke a reconciliation pact reached between the Druze and the Maronites in 2000.

As dangerous as the incident was, the political implications could be more treacherous.

Following the bloodshed, Arslan and Bassil demanded that Lebanon’s cabinet place the incident before the Judicial Council, a special tribunal that has extra-jurisdictional authority on cases of national security. Jumblatt, who has the support of most of the cabinet members, opposed the move, insisting the issue could be handled by regular judicial authorities.

Bassil and his bloc then boycotted a scheduled cabinet meeting, refusing to allow it to convene unless the topic of whether to bring the security issue before the Judicial Council would be considered.

The standoff involves far more than the security incident. It shows how dangerous Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Faustian arrangement with Bassil is. Once Hariri relinquished one-third of his cabinet to Bassil, he was rendered incapable of fulfilling his constitutional mandate as prime minister.

More important, Bassil’s ally Hezbollah gained significant strength, allowing Bassil to use its arms to push around his political foes, including Jumblatt and Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces.

Bassil’s refusal to allow the country’s cabinet to convene constitutes a clear breach of the Lebanese Constitution, which stipulates that the prime minister is the one who should “call the Council of Ministers into session and sets its agenda, and… inform the president beforehand of the subjects included on the agenda and of the urgent subjects that will be discussed.”

The designation is no small matter. It was an important change introduced with the Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war in 1990 and made way for a more equitable form of governance.

For Bassil, exercising control over the cabinet is just another way for him to exert leverage over Hariri. Hezbollah, by the same token, continues to push back against Hariri by isolating Lebanon regionally and internationally, reminding the country that, with its Maronite allies, it can bully its political foes into submission.

The recent drama is merely a rehearsal for the challenges Hariri will face in the not-too-distant future, including the expected verdict by a special tribunal tasked with designating responsibility for the death of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

When the verdict becomes official — and likely names senior Hezbollah members as culprits — Hezbollah and its allies will demand that the Lebanese state express solidarity with them and proclaim the tribunal’s findings invalid and conspiratorial.

This might seem far-fetched but so was the prospect of an alliance between Hariri and Michel Aoun that catapulted the latter into the presidency.

If Lebanon’s cabinet dilemma was not enough trouble, US sanctions on two Hezbollah lawmakers presented further challenges to the state, reminding Beirut that it cannot escape retribution over its concessions to Iran and Hezbollah.

Hariri, meanwhile, strongly defended his decision to maintain the controversial alliance. Putting aside political differences, he argued, is critical to ensuring Lebanon’s economic stability.

While this might sound responsible, Bassil’s efforts to undermine Hariri’s cabinet’s economic plan by derailing the entire system of governance is evidence that Bassil and Hezbollah are reading from a different book, one whose last chapter will not be pleasant.

3