Although Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Al-Hariri handed a formula for a national-unity government to President Michel Aoun last month, there is still no sign of the promised new government in Lebanon.
“No one has the formula but the president and myself… We have not discussed it with anyone else. The ideas for it were derived from all the political forces,” Al-Hariri tweeted.
Since the Lebanese legislative elections in May, the country’s political parties have been vying over ministerial portfolios, while international officials and donors have feared that the delays will aggravate Lebanon’s economic problems.
On 10 October, Al-Hariri said a new cabinet would see the light of day within the next ten days because of the urgency of the economic situation that had compelled concessions in the national interest.
However, he also said in a statement to the press that should he fail to form a government this time round, he would turn down an invitation to try again. The remark was seen as an attempt to pressure the parties to stop haggling over the formation of the government.
Lebanese Future Movement MP Rola Al-Tabsh said the complications were domestic ones and that there had been no foreign interventions. Of Al-Hariri’s intimation that if he failed to form a government this time round he would refuse a request to try again, she said that “we hope things don’t reach that point because it would mean disaster for Lebanon.”
Al-Tabsh stressed that the lack of a government was causing further deterioration in the economic situation. While the security situation was stable under the caretaker government, the economic situation could no longer wait, she said.
Hold-ups to forming a new government are related to various developments including the Free Patriotic Movement’s insistence, backed by the president, on retaining an “obstructive third” in the cabinet, meaning a third of the seats plus one giving the party or bloc that controls it the power to block decisions or force the government to resign.
Retaining this principle has long been a demand of the Hezbullah-led 8 March Alliance that includes the Free Patriotic Movement, to which the president belongs, and the Amal Movement.
Lebanon’s Christians have also made demands about the way in which the Christian quota of ministerial portfolios is divided among the Christian parties.
While the Marada Movement has created difficulties, contentions between the Lebanese Forces Party and the Free Patriotic Movement have presented greater problems.
The former’s flexibility concerning the size of its representation in the cabinet has alleviated this problem, but this has yet to meet a positive response from the Free Patriotic Movement, according to reports.
The “president’s quota” remains one of the most controversial obstructions. According to convention, the president has the right to name a certain number of ministers, and Aoun is insisting on his share of cabinet seats in his capacity as president, in addition to the quota reserved for the Free Patriotic Movement (headed by his son-in-law) that controls the largest bloc in parliament.
Critics of Aoun’s demands have recalled his remarks in 2011 at the time of negotiations to form a government under president Michel Suleiman. Aoun, then head of the Reform and Change Bloc, asked “what gives the president of the republic the right to a share of the seats in the government?”
Ahmed Fatfat, a former Future Movement MP who attended the negotiations for the Doha Agreement reached by the rival Lebanese factions in May 2008, said that “it was agreed at that time to give the president a share in the cabinet because he was not represented in parliament and needed a political presence to exercise his authority.”
“But the Doha Agreement was a temporary arrangement. The idea of granting the president a cabinet quota emerged in connection with the raid on Beirut [the invasion of western Beirut by Hizbullah and the Amal Movement in May 2008].
That crisis ended with the electoral battle of 2009, and everyone agreed that the Doha Agreement then also ended and that we should return to the Taif Agreement, which does not grant the president a quota of ministerial seats,” he said.
An even more intractable problem is with the Druze representation in government in view of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s insistence that this should be the preserve of his Progressive Socialist Party.
Talal Arslan of the Lebanese Democratic Party (also Druze) has no right to a share of the Druze quota because “others are representing the Druze,” Jumblatt said.
The Jumblatt and Arslan clans have historically led Lebanon’s Druze community, but the former has grown more powerful with the result that the Arslan presence in government is contingent upon agreements with the Jumblatt clan or with non-Druze political forces.
Talal Arslan, head of the Strong Lebanon bloc, said on a social-networking site that “contrary to reports of a breakthrough in the so-called Druze problem, the subject is still pending. Anything beyond this is pure speculation.”
The Lebanese factions thus continue to blame one another for obstructing the formation of a new government, while Al-Hariri has confined himself to urging all the parties to compromise.
Emad Wakim of the Strong Republic bloc led by the head of the Lebanese Forces Party Samir Geagea accused Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and foreign minister in the caretaker government, of obstructing the formation of a new government because “he dictates conditions and assumes the role of prime minister and president.”
Bassil denied the accusations. “Many people are praying for a problem to arise between me and Prime Minister-designate Saad Al-Hariri, but that won’t happen. I believe that the president, together with the largest parliamentary bloc, should get the ministries of the interior and finance and that minorities have a right to be represented in the government,” he said.
“Our aim is not 11 ministries or any other quantity. That is a question of representation. The president and the prime minister do not need the ‘obstructive third’. That is just an idea thrown out there to distract people,” Bassil added.
He also underscored the urgency of forming a new government. Referring to a powerful media that “distorts the facts,” he said that “we are seeing an unnatural war to undermine our agreements. These require bringing in a government that we know will work and be productive.”
Of the portfolios his party seeks, Bassil said that “we want the Ministry of Labour as well as the Ministry of Energy. Otherwise, we want reassurances that those who do get them will not use them for electoral purposes.”
Another MP from the Strong Lebanon bloc, Assaad Dargham, said the understanding with Al-Hariri regarding the formation of the new government was still in effect and that if he failed to forge a government this time round the Free Patriotic Movement (the main party in the Strong Lebanon bloc) would once again nominate Al-Hariri as prime minister.
Meanwhile, the paralysis has prevented Lebanon from obtaining billions of dollars in grants and loans in order to revive the country’s tattered economy. It has raised fears of further decay, which would impact on the Lebanese lira.
The current climate surrounding the formation of a new government is more consensual than ever before, however, in view of the agreement between the two Christian poles, Aoun and Geagea, and the alliance between the two former foes, Al-Hariri and Aoun, easing tensions between Al-Hariri and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.
However, the improved climate has not kept Lebanese politicians from locking horns over details. Relations remain strained between Geagea of the Lebanese Forces Party and Bassil of the Free Patriotic Movement despite the understanding signed between the two parties that paved the way for Geagea’s supporting Aoun’s nomination as president.
There are also problems between the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement in spite of the apparently cordial personal relationship between Al-Hariri and Aoun.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: No new government in Lebanon