Lebanon’s New Government: Regional Realignment Generates Local Consensus
It took 11 months to establish a government that will only last for three months. This government, which represents all the political parties except for the Lebanese Forces, is only concerned with the Presidential election due in May 2014. It will not have the appetite, or capability to address Lebanon’s daunting socio-economic problems. However, it may be able to prevent the security situation from worsening, while awaiting the outcome of regional developments.
Lebanon’s new government has 24 ministers divided equally amongst the three blocs: March 8, March 14, and the Centrist bloc which includes allies of the President, the Prime Minister, and Walid Jumblatt. Each bloc has a one third share giving it the ability to veto legislation unfavorable to its interests. The formation of the government came as a result of recent wheeling and dealing by various parties. For one, the Future movement, whose platform rested on a refusal to engage with Hizbullah unless the latter withdrew from Syria, dropped this demand. In return, Hizbullah conceded that Ashraf Rifi and Nuhad Mashnouq, both considered as hawks in the Future Movement, would function as ministers of the Justice and Interior portfolios, respectively. The Free Patriotic Movement, which had insisted on keeping Gebran Basil as energy minister, also conceded this demand, in return for taking the foreign ministry. However, this also allows Basil to keep a close eye on the energy portfolio through the appointment of a colleague within his bloc.
The good news is that the formation of a government demonstrates the willingness of political parties to make the necessary compromises, even at a time when they seem most intransigent. This is also important because the Council of Ministers can, and should provide a medium for the opposing political parties to resolve their differences around the table, rather than on the streets.
However, having a government in place does not mean that it will actually address the challenges facing the country. In fact, the government was only formed now to avoid the situation spiraling further out of control, with the presidential election only two months away. Although it remains unclear who will emerge as the frontrunner, political parties seem eager to reserve a seat around the table especially if no consensus candidate emerges.
This government will neither be interested in nor capable of addressing the unprecedented socio-economic challenges facing the country. With more than one million Syrian refugees, increasing unemployment and poverty, a sharp downturn in economic activities, rising budget deficits, and more recently acute water shortages, the Lebanese population will be left largely to their own devices.
It is important to understand the context that paved the way for the creation of this government. For one, although Tamam Salam was nominated by 124 out of 128 Members of Parliament to become the next Prime Minister, no political party or bloc, even the one that nominated him, wanted him to actually succeed in forming a government unless it was transient. More importantly, there is a regional context that allowed this government to come to life. No unity government can be formed without an Iranian-Saudi agreement. With the Iranians eager to have a government in place where Hizbullah is an active participant, the Saudis were more reluctant to have one until recently. To understand the change of heart of the Saudis, it is important to observe the recent changes that are taking place within the Kingdom, where it seems that the more moderate faction has regained control over foreign policies vis-à-vis the US, Syria, and consequently Lebanon.
The recent royal decree which prevents Saudis from fighting abroad seems to signal a realignment with the US policy vis-à-vis the region and the war in Syria. It also shows that the faction that is supporting the extremists in Syria does not have the King’s blessing. We will have to wait and see how this will unfold, especially since the US-Iranian agreement will be tested in May for the second round of negotiations. In the meantime, Lebanon is on hold, slave to the regional politicking upon which its future rests.