Lebanon's new cabinet: up to the challenge?

AFP , Friday 1 Feb 2019

In this photo released by Lebanon's official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, center, meets with Lebanese newly-assigned Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, right, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, left, meets at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. (Photo: AP)

Lebanon's new cabinet includes three posts for Hezbollah, a Shia group subject to US sanctions.

The incoming government will need to carry out vital reforms to stave off an economic crisis.

How different from its predecessors is this administration, announced on Thursday after an eight-month delay, and can it handle the challenges?


What does Hezbollah gain?

Shia movement Hezbollah, which is listed as a terror organisation by the United States, has gained three places in the new cabinet -- a record number for the party.

Iran-backed Hezbollah is the only party not to have disarmed after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and is a staunch ally of President Bashar al-Assad's regime in neighbouring war-torn Syria.

The United States has slapped a series of sanctions on the group.

Key Washington ally Israel has in recent months moved to destroy a network of tunnels built by Hezbollah into the Jewish state.

Imad Salamey, a professor of political sciences at the Lebanese American University, said Hezbollah was seeking security in the new government.

"The party is in need for national protection and national support due to the financial sanctions and military threat by Israel," he said.

Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar added that Prime Minister Saad "Hariri, with his Western facade, could be a safety catch and source of help faced with the American sanctions."

Hezbollah's new portfolio at the head of the health ministry will make it hard for international donors to avoid them, Salamey said.

And it will be an interesting post for the Shiite group, says Karim Bitar, of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs think-tank.

"The health ministry is one of those juicy ministries that can allow you to distribute services to voters," he said.


Has anything changed?

Lebanon is governed by a complex system which aims to maintain a precarious balance of power across religious and political communities.

The new cabinet gives roles to 30 ministers from Lebanon's rival political clans, including four women.

While Hezbollah has three positions, its ally the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, a Christian, has landed 10 portfolios. Fellow Shiite party Amal also holds three.

Hariri's Future Movement party takes five posts.

The women in the new cabinet include Raya al-Hasan, a former finance minister from the premier's grouping, as head of the interior ministry.

Nada Boustani, from the Free Patriotic Movement, is to become energy and water minister.

May Chidiac, a former journalist and vocal critic of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, is to be minister of administrative planning.

But analysts say there is little hope for major change.

"Power relations overall remain unchanged," Bitar said.

"We've been watching rather ridiculous bargaining," he said of eight months of wrangling over cabinet positions.

"We saw community leaders swap positions last minute, demanding ministries more conducive to handing out services to their allies," Bitar added.


Will there be reforms?

Finally formed, the cabinet will now have to tackle key reforms to save a service-based economy on the brink of collapse.

On Thursday, Hariri said the government would have a lot on its plate.

"The next government will be forced to take difficult decisions to decrease previous allocations in the general budget," he said.

A conference dubbed CEDRE in the French capital in April pledged aid worth $11 billion (9.5 billion euros), promising to stave off an economic crisis.

But the protracted arguments over the cabinet's makeup threatened to scupper that aid, further damaging the ailing economy.

Lebanon is one of the world's most indebted countries, with public debt estimated at 141 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2018, according to credit ratings agency Moody's.

Annual economic growth averaged 9 percent over the last two full years before the war broke out in Syria, but has since plummeted to little more than one percent in recent years.

At the Paris conference, Lebanon committed to reforms including slashing public spending and overhauling the electricity sector.

In exchange, the international community has pledged major aid and loans, mostly for infrastructure projects that need to be signed off by the new government.

But Bitar said the announcement of a new government would only briefly relieve pressure over the economy.

"This Lebanese political class is genetically incapable of proceeding with necessary structural reforms, because it abusively milks the current system" for its own benefit, he said.

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