The Lebanese Hunger Games
A breeze of optimism is blowing across Lebanon, particularly within the ranks of the political elite, which seem to be expecting a swift formation of the next cabinet, a lengthy process that typically follows every parliamentary election.
That rosy outlook found further ground with the re-election of parliament Speaker Nabih Berri for the sixth time. Further fuelling political optimism was the designating of incumbent Prime Minister Saad Hariri by 111 of the 128 MPs to form the upcoming cabinet.
However, despite the auspicious omens, good fortune alone will not be enough to propel Hariri through the many challenges and pitfalls ahead, both in forming a cabinet and the obstacles that cabinet will face.
Perhaps the main challenge is the thorny matter of including Hezbollah within the cabinet and, by extension, allowing it to continue to use its governmental position to grant legitimacy to it extracurricular activities across the region. Exacerbating matters was the adoption of a wide range of sanctions by the Trump administration and the Terrorist Financing Targeting Centre (composed of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar) against Hezbollah and individuals connected to the group.
These new US and Arab sanctions were explicit in their designation of the entirety of Hezbollah — including the political wing that serves in the Lebanese parliament — as a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah previously was allowed a political margin to operate within, mostly by the Europeans, who held that, despite its violent endeavours, Hezbollah was essentially representative of the Lebanese Shias and, as such, any boycott would be ill-advised.
However, much appears to have changed. As things stand, Hariri no longer has the luxury of allowing the group carte blanche to forward any member it chooses for a cabinet position.
Since his brief falling-out with the Saudi establishment in November, Hariri has worked diligently to prove to his Saudi and Arab allies that he is acutely aware of the danger of allowing Hezbollah and Iran to operate freely in Lebanon. For Hariri to resume his normalisation process with the Saudi government and other Gulf states, his cabinet needs to be Hezbollah-free.
Seemingly aware of these challenges, Hariri declared that the latest sanctions would have a positive effect on the formation of the government, as if Hezbollah would fathom their implications and choose to elect moderate Shias as its representatives.
While Hariri’s ambitious thought process might appear logical, Hezbollah’s political and military actions along with its rhetoric during the election campaign, would suggest Hariri’s hopes are doomed.
Some have speculated the sanctions are there to remind Hariri and the Lebanese state of their need to uphold its dissociation policy and, in exchange, Hariri can appease Hezbollah and offer it seats in his cabinet.
However, for Hezbollah, one of the main reasons for even taking part in the Lebanese political process was to convert whatever legitimacy it gains into guarantees that the demands of both the Lebanese and international communities that it relinquish its weapons be safely ignored.
Be that as it may, if Hariri dodges the Hezbollah bullet, he will still be left with the ceaseless demands of the Lebanese political swamp, with all its residents competing to acquire key portfolios in the next cabinet.
All the demands of Lebanon’s power-hungry factions must be catered to, with each seeking to maximise whatever cash-in is available in return for its electoral performance.
Leading the pack of these overambitious contenders is Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who has been leveraging the presidency to establish a robust parliamentary and cabinet bloc. Similarly, the Lebanese Forces, the other major Christian faction, which almost doubled its seats in parliament, is demanding its fair share of the governmental pie, something Bassil wishes to thwart.
Equally challenging for Hariri is accommodating the many pro-Syrian MPs who made a significant comeback within the Lebanese political milieu. Along with the need to appease these newly enfranchised MPs, Hariri must be equally aware of the threat posed by them to his leadership of the country’s Sunni population.
Contrary to expectations, Hariri’s formation of the government will have to wait until these obstacles are surmounted. When that happens, Hariri will be left with a cabinet he occasionally leads and one in which he is constantly forced to compromise with to retain his position.
More important, while Hariri and the rest of the political elite are engaged in their version of the Hunger Games, the Lebanese economy and debt levels deteriorate, with Lebanon’s future as precarious as ever.