After five months of deadlock, a new government was formed in Lebanon on June 13. The new 30-man government is a semi-coalition government with a majority of eighteen seats for the March 8 coalition led by Hezbollah, and a blocking minority of twelve seats for ministers close to Prime Minister Najib Mikati, President Michel Suleiman, and Druze leader Walid Junblatt. These players are not all on the same page. The differences among them delayed the government formation process and are likely to continue within the government. Nevertheless, this is a Hezbollah-dominated and pro-Syrian government, although Mikati will try to moderate the March 8 majority’s agenda and try to maintain good relations with the international community.
The ultimate fate of this government is linked to developments in Syria—and particularly whether the Syrian regime can survive the current unrest or not. For now, the formation of the government will bring some life and predictability to Lebanon’s governing institutions and possibly provide a boost for the sagging economy and jeopardized summer tourist season. Politically, however, the government formation could lead to renewed polarization as the anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition enters a period of vocal opposition.
Mikati was designated to form a government in January after the national unity government of Saad Hariri was brought down. The government formation process took five months for three reasons. First, the March 8 coalition wanted a firm two-thirds majority, while Mikati insisted on keeping a one-third-plus-one bloc for himself, the president, and Junblatt, providing a constitutional veto on major decisions—Mikati was able to secure this with a bloc of twelve. Second, General Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian group allied with Hezbollah, wanted to wrest control of the ministries of interior and defense from President Suleiman—and Aoun largely succeeded in this. Third, when the troubles in Syria started, Mikati was accused of no longer being in a rush to form a government seeming comfortable buying time to see how things in Syria would play out; he was coming under intense pressure from the March 8 coalition in this regard. In the end, a last major concession offered by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri broke the deadlock, as Berri offered one of the six Shiite seats in the cabinet to the Sunni community. This means that for the first time in decades there are seven Sunni ministers and only five Shiite ministers, whereas the agreed power-sharing formula is for them to be equal.
In the current government, General Aoun has the largest bloc with eight ministries, including the important portfolios of justice, energy, and telecommunications. Suleiman Franjiyeh, a Maronite leader from North Lebanon with close ties to the Assad family, has two ministries, including the key ministry of defense. Hezbollah continues to prefer to keep a low profile having only two seats, including the relatively unimportant agriculture ministry. The Amal movement, led by Berri, gave up one ministry seat and is now left with only two, the important ministries of foreign affairs and health. The minister of interior is a retired internal security officer who was jointly named by General Aoun and President Suleiman.
Prime Minister Mikati has a bloc of six ministers, including the key ministry of finance (his ally Muhammad Safadi), the ministry of economy and trade—control over the finance and economy ministries ensures that Mikati is responsible for the public finance and economic aspects of the government’s activities—and the ministry of education. Walid Junblatt, whose switching of sides brought down the previous Hariri government and enabled this government to be formed, was rewarded with three service-oriented ministries, including the ministries of social affairs, public works, and the ministry of the displaced.
This government probably does not exactly represent Mikati’s ambitions, but it’s the only one he could put together given the power balances in parliament. He is on very cool terms with the Aounist camp and his relations with Hezbollah and Amal have been strained. On major issues, like the international tribunal, Mikati will try to navigate an almost impossible line between his government—which will not vote to cooperate with the tribunal—and his own position—which is to respect Lebanon’s international obligations and not break with the international community. He is also squeezed between his Hezbollah government partners and Sunni public opinion that remains largely hostile to Hezbollah.
The government could face an early challenge if recent rumors that the special tribunal for Lebanon will release indictments in July prove correct. When indictments are issued, a Lebanese government is required to at least arrest the indictees—this government will not do that. Even if indictments are not issued soon, the government will face the obligation to pay its share of the annual dues to the tribunal—something this government will also not do. Faced with such noncooperation from the Lebanese government, it would be up to the Security Council to decide what to do next. It could move to isolate and pressure Lebanon or it could find other parties to pay the dues and proceed without pressuring Lebanon unduly.
At the end of the day, the fortunes of this government are largely tied to events in Syria. If the government in Syria survives the recent uprisings and manages to regain its footing through whatever combination of repression and/or reform, Lebanon’s government could prove to be long-lived and serve until the date of the next parliamentary elections in the spring of 2013. If the government in Syria falls much deeper into crisis and/or is removed or replaced, the reverberations will greatly impact Lebanon and probably bring down the government.
Otherwise, the formation of this government represents a continuation of a trend that started three years ago. Hezbollah asserted its dominance over Lebanon back in May 2008 when it took over the nation’s capital and dictated its terms to Saad Hariri and the March 14 coalition. By January 2011 it had decided that it no longer wanted to work with Hariri and sought other means to exercise its influence. This government further expresses Hezbollah’s influence in the country—and with that the influence of Syria and Iran.
Saudi Arabia has been displeased with developments in Lebanon since May 2008, but now it has larger concerns. Riyadh is busy maintaining stability in Bahrain and in the rest of the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council lest the pro-democracy revolutions jump the Suez Canal and infest the eastern part of the Middle East. For this reason, it has been largely supportive of the government in Syria in the recent crisis despite differences—as opposed to its quick turn against Qaddafi in Libya—and hence is more tolerant of a pro-Syrian government in Lebanon for the time being than otherwise would be the case.
Internally, the government has many challenges ahead of it, including managing a $50 billion public debt, a banking sector shaken by charges of Hezbollah-connected money laundering, a flagging economy, an under-sourced energy sector, an outdated telecommunications network, poor infrastructure, and slow job growth. The government also needs to move quickly to prepare for offshore gas exploration with Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, and other countries already getting a head start.
Politically, many politicians in this government have their eye on the key parliamentary elections of 2013. The fortunes of the coalition this government represents depend on two electoral challenges: whether General Aoun can reproduce or expand the electoral victories in Christian districts that he achieved in 2005 and 2009 and whether Mikati and his Sunni allies in Tripoli can at least win the parliamentary elections in that city. Mikati ran, in the past elections, as an ally on Hariri’s ticket; to stake his claim to an independent leadership position of the Sunni community he would have to win the Tripoli election without Hariri. Mikati stacked the government with four ministers from Tripoli, in addition to himself, to strengthen his electoral position.
For the time being, the new government reinforces Hezbollah’s dominance in the country that began in 2008 and ushers in a new period of contentious politics between this government and the March 14 opposition. Regionally, it does not have a dramatic impact, but will be impacted by what does or does not happen in Syria. Domestically, its formation will probably inject some dynamism into the Lebanese economy and public institutions after five months of having no government. And politically—unless some dramatic change comes from Syria—the country will be awaiting the international tribunal indictments and the 2013 parliamentary elections.
With its fractured internal politics and overpowering external influence, Lebanon has been floundering for years. It has been captive to the winds of regional conflict for at least the last four decades. It remains in the crosshairs of the Israeli-Syrian and the Israeli-Iranian standoffs. It is in Lebanon’s interest that its friends around the world and in the West do not overreact to the cobbling together of this latest government. Lebanon’s problems are deep and will not begin to be resolved until something major changes at the regional level. In the meantime, Lebanon should not be unduly isolated or pressured as a result of what some groups in the country—supported by the force of arms—have been able to impose.