Lebanese musical chairs: Hariri and the quest for cabinet
BEIRUT - A month into the election of Lebanon’s new president, the current Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has thus far failed to form a new government.
Hariri’s task was initially projected as somewhat smooth given that almost all the political factions and parliamentary blocs had named him to form the first government. However, given all the obstacles that have come up, Hariri seems to be facing a task that might prove to be more than he bargained for.
The challenge is not merely how to divide the ministries, but rather how to adapt to the new proposed structural changes, new President Michel Aoun and his Christian allies, mainly the Lebanese Forces, are trying to pass. Speaker of the House Nabih Berri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt would like to do that, perhaps at any cost.
Aoun’s election, made possible only after Hariri agreed to support him, was portrayed by the Christian bloc — the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) — as the return of “a strong president”. This rhetoric shows Aoun’s continued disdain for the 1989 Taif Accord which ended the Lebanese civil war, put an end to his mutiny and ultimately led to constitutional amendments that forced the president to abdicate some of his powers to the cabinet.
Gebran Bassil, the current head of the FPM and Aoun’s son-in-law, has declared its future mission will be to correct the injustices Christians have suffered in the past, implicitly denoting the Taif Accord and the period that followed.
This and other similar statements are mainly directed towards Berri and Jumblatt, who, alongside the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, were the pillars of the post-Taif political structure.
Saad Hariri has never challenged Aoun’s statements but instead issued some of his own affirming that Taif was something the new president and his team fully endorsed. By electing Aoun as president, Hariri believes, this would mean a return to the old set-up where he as the leading Sunni politician would be running Lebanon’s economic resurgence. Aoun, however, will not allow anyone to share the spotlight and seeks to rule as a strong president under the previous 1943 constitutional formula, which means the prime minister would have to play second fiddle.
In one memorable instance, at a public function during the presidential term of Sleiman Franjieh (1970-76), as was the custom, the seats of the speaker of the parliament, prime minister and the president were set out next to one another, but the president’s chair was slightly advanced.
On this occasion, Saeb Salam, prime minister at the time, made a point of picking up his chair and moving it to be level with Franjieh’s in a blatant disregard for protocol and a clear cry for parity. At a subsequent function, when Salam attempted to repeat the same manoeuvre, he was unpleasantly surprised to find out that his chair was nailed to the ground upon Franjieh’s orders, thus settling this issue once and for all and reaffirming the primacy of the Maronite presidency over the other constitutional positions.
Much of the refusal of the anti- Aoun bloc to relinquish any of their portfolios in the cabinets is therefore better understood when viewed through this lens. Consequently, Berri and Jumblatt are in fact objecting to Aoun’s craving for more power, something that does not seem likely to subside.
The real challenge for Hariri and his government is not to convince Berri to settle for the portfolio of public health instead of the much coveted Ministry of Public Works, but to convince all parties involved to adopt a clear map for the road ahead.
Allowing any of the Lebanese groups to feel like second-class citizens cannot bode well. A strong and capable president therefore should instead make all feel that, when the music stops, no Lebanese will be left without a chair, perhaps only then a strong state will truly emerge.