Ministry of Justice proves stumbling block in cabinet formation
Five months have passed since caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri was selected to form Lebanon’s next cabinet, a task he has yet to achieve.
While it is common for the Lebanese to take their time when it comes to accomplishing ostensibly simple democratic practices, the current political deadlock speaks more to the failure of the Lebanese political class’s efforts to avoid the country’s looming economic collapse.
Sources close to Hariri appeared optimistic recently that an agreement on the new government was reaching its final stages, with Hariri satisfying the various factions and assuaging Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s apparently limitless thirst for power -- or so it seemed.
At the 11th hour, when all signs indicated that Aoun had conceded the Justice portfolio to the Lebanese Forces (LF), the second biggest Christian bloc in parliament, he backtracked and declared that the portfolio was the prerogative of the president.
This unexpected hitch, to many, came as final confirmation that the stuttering process of forming a new government goes beyond petty horse-trading over key cabinet positions. Instead, it foreshadows a potential confrontation in the next presidential elections between the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), headed by Aoun’s son-in-law and potential political successor, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Despite having signed a memorandum of understanding in January 2016 that secured Aoun the presidency, both the LF and the FPM failed to establish a shared political position on many of the issues facing Lebanon. The standoff between the two sides was exacerbated by the May elections, which saw the LF virtually double its seats in parliament, thus presenting a serious challenge to the FPM’s claim to the leadership of the country’s Christian population.
A source in the LF said that “the FPM simply is unwilling to recognise the recent outcome of the elections, which coupled with the noticeable performance of our ministers have added to our approval ratings.”
This source said the upcoming cabinet, once formed, would likely stay in office until the next parliamentary elections, whose outcome would determine the country’s next president.
For Bassil, determined to prevent the LF from expanding its power base, it is vital he denies the group any public recognition of its role as a parliamentary bloc, instead constantly referring to the LF’s militia past.
Surprisingly and, despite Bassil’s outward aggression, the LF remains steadfast in its pact with the FPM, claiming its commitment to inter-Christian dialogue and refusing to abandon it. Neither will it relinquish its right to a significant share of seats in the next cabinet.
The refusal of Aoun, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, to relinquish the Ministry of Justice to the LF or any of the anti-Hezbollah factions says a lot of Iran’s hegemony over the Lebanese political process.
While the Lebanese judiciary has no real sway in a country where the concept of the separation of power is little but a fairy tale, the Ministry of Justice remains an important portfolio in that it allows its holder to underscore its legitimacy.
The ministry is granted more prominence by the fact that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, will soon issue its final verdict, one expected to name senior Hezbollah operatives as the perpetrators of the former prime minister’s death.
Consequently, both Aoun and Hezbollah are expected to use the Ministry of Justice, which liaises with the international community on the matter, to derail and dilute the effect of whatever verdict the tribunal brings.
Equally important for Hezbollah is the Ministry of Justice’s role regarding US sanctions on Iran and its subsidiaries, all of which look set to cripple its ability to arm and equip its fighters across the region.
Having the Ministry of Justice in its sphere of influence via its alliance with Aoun would help Hezbollah find loopholes in the US measures, as well as allow the group an insider look at the intelligence the Lebanese government receives from the US Treasury Department.
Many Lebanese guilelessly look at the government formation as a potential bridge to economic and political salvation. However, all signs indicate Lebanon’s predicament is far worse than had been understood.
Lebanon has been consumed internally. Together, a lack of vision and the elite’s overwhelming greed has left the Lebanese with little option but to wait for the country’s economic ruin to draw near, when no Ministry of Justice or any other portfolio will make much of a difference.