Possibility of new government still uncertain in Lebanon

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati
By Justin Salhani
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Political differences have prevented Lebanon from forming a new government, six months after the last one collapsed, as opposing political factions await new developments in the war in Syria. A cabinet could however be formed by later this month, according to a political source.
“There is not any deal as of now [to form a government],” said Mohamad Machnouk, a political analyst who has been tipped by local media as a possible ministerial appointee. He did however say that a government could be assembled “after Eid [al-Adha] on the 20th, but that’s only an estimation.”
When Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned late last March he brought the government down with him. A political agreement brought forward Tamam Salam, son of former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, to take over the position of Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s job is to form a government by appointing ministers to his cabinet. However, Lebanon’s multitude of political parties have yet to agree on how the latest cabinet will be divided, as they wait for the Syrian civil war to play out next door.
Lebanon, a country slightly smaller than Connecticut located on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, was subject to a military and political occupation by the Syrian regime that lasted until 2005. The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad still maintains a strong political influence in Lebanon via its allies in the March 8 political bloc. While Mikati himself is not considered a member of March 8, his recently dissolved government was mostly concocted of politicians in March 8 parties.
On the other side of the political divide is the pro-West/pro-Gulf March 14 bloc that has regularly stated support for the Syrian opposition.
“There have been attempts to form a new government but each attempt is blocked by obstacles either from Saudi Arabia and the Future Movement or Hezbollah,” said political analyst Dr. Haytham Mouzahem. The Future Movement is part of the March 14 bloc and politically aligned with Saudi Arabia.
“There are so many elements intertwined [in forming a government],” said Machnouk, adding that the negotiations have been bouncing back and forth between political blocs as both try to come to grasps with the regional situation.
One problem, according to Mouzahem, is Hezbollah’s demand that March 8 be awarded one-third of the cabinet’s seats, a move that will award them veto power in the cabinet. Should Hezbollah and their allies in March 8 obtain a third of the seats they will have the power to bring down the government. March 8 last did this in 2011 when their cabinet bloc resigned from former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government, effectively toppling it.
“March 14 says presenting March 8 with a third of the cabinet seats will undermine the future government,” Mouzahem said. March 14 has instead hit back at Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, arguing that the party should not be allowed to participate in any government formation.
To try and break the current deadlock, numerous propositions have been put forward by the array of parties and players in Lebanon’s political arena.
“March 8 has proposed a 9-9-6 division which gives nine cabinet positions each to March 8 and March 14 with the six leftover slots for centrists that include President Michel Sleiman,” Mouzahem explained. The current caretaker cabinet has 30 ministerial positions but there has been talk that the new cabinet would only seat 24.
Other parties have suggested a divide of 8-8-8 between March 8, March 14 and centrists, while some parliament members in the March 14 bloc have called for a purely technocratic government. Hezbollah has argued that the government must be comprised of politicians in order to represent the Lebanese population.
Political analysts believe that all Lebanese parties are merely biding their time while new developments in Syria unfold. “New developments and the repositioning of political factions are all elements,” said Machnouk, the reported ministerial candidate.
“The agreement between Russia and the United States on Syria’s chemical weapons enhanced the position of the regime and its allies,” said Mouzahem. Russia and the United States agreed to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal last month, in turn preventing a U.S.-led air strike against specific targets in Syria held by al-Assad.
Mouzahem also said that infighting in armed groups opposed to the regime has put the Syrian president in a stronger position politically.
“The most important thing at the moment in Lebanon is peace and stability,” Mouzahem said. The caretaker government is currently trusted to handle the situation as political actors wait for progress in Syria, Mouzahem added. But he maintained that March 14 would prefer to see a mixed-bloc government formed rather than the continuation of a caretaker government dominated by its opponents in March 8.
“March 14 believes that Mikati and the March 8 government cannot go against Hezbollah’s wishes so they’d rather give them their veto than allow the current government to continue its duties,” he said, adding that March 14 would be under more pressure to negotiate the closer Lebanon came to the end of President Michel Sleiman’s term in spring 2014.
If a cabinet were to be formed by month’s end, Machnouk said, all parties involved would have to accept March 8’s demand for a “one-third bloc” of cabinet seats.
“There has been talk of an agreement but there is no green light yet,” Machnouk said.
Justin Salhani is The Atlantic Post’s Lebanon Correspondent, based in Beirut.
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