The View From Beirut - Interview with Paul Salem

Other Publications Middle East Bulletin
Summary
A unity government has been formed in Lebanon following the electoral defeat of the Hezbollah-led coalition in June. However, in order to stabilize the fragile country, the new government must succeed in instituting economic, political, and security reforms.
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What is the make-up of the new Lebanese cabinet?
 
The make-up is fairly well-known in terms of the formula of distributing the 30 seats. That is, 15 seats for what is now loosely known as the March 14 coalition, 10 seats for the March 8 opposition, and five seats for the president. That formula of 15-10-5 was arrived at early on in this process—months ago—and it remained the formula that ended up forming this government. Now, within that 15-10-5 distribution, it must be noted that among the 15, there are three that belong to Walid Jumblatt, of the PSP, who has defected from March 14, and now has an independent political faction, but he is still counted in this formula as part of that 15. So, you could say that there are really 12 March 14 members, three Walid Jumblatt members who are somewhat close to March 14 members, but really independent, and then you have 10 and five. Another important detail is that among the five that are named for the president, there is one that is very close to March 8, and essentially approved by March 8, and one that is approved by March 14. So among those five, there are really three strictly for the president, and one each that are nominated by the president, but in a pinch would probably answer to March 8 on one side and March 14 on the other. That’s roughly the current make-up in broad outlines.
 
Why did it take so long to put the cabinet together, and what do you think caused them to finally come to an agreement?
 
There are a number of reasons. One, the March 14 coalition won the parliamentary elections in June, but March 8 insisted that March 14 should not be allowed to have an outright majority in the government. That was a sticking point that took up a good while early on for Saad Hariri, the nominated prime minister, to accept; that, in the end, he would not really have an outright majority. A second thing that affected the process was the defection of Walid Jumblatt, which happened a few weeks into this process, and shook the whole political power balance in the country throwing a wrench into the process. That took a while to absorb and adjust to. Finally, there was the matter of the demand of Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, who insisted on a number of particular ministries—Aoun insisted on having five representatives and bargained very, very hard. That was, in effect, over the last month what took so long.
 
Behind the scenes are underlying causes. There are two that one might refer to. One is that Lebanon still falls in between different forces and powers in the region and abroad. For a while, Saudi-Syrian tensions were relevant, in that their clients or allies in the country reflected the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Then Saudi-Syrian relations improved, and that allowed things to move forward. For a while, American and Syrian relations were also very bad, and that, indirectly slowed things down in Lebanon as well. Lebanon remains in a situation of being a bargaining arena or a bargaining chip, as it were, for larger powers.
 
A domestic reason is the formula of power-sharing after the Taif Agreement; a number of groups have reservations about it. Hezbollah and the Shiite community in general are not terribly pleased with their share of executive power—that is coming out regularly now. When you try to form a government you find this sort of reluctance and lack of enthusiasm. Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement are unhappy about not having secured the presidency, unhappy about their position in the system, so they are rather difficult as well. So there are internal domestic reasons as well.
 
What do you think finally gave them the push?
 
There doesn’t seem to have been a decisive, final push—it did take five months. Five months is a long time, and none of the parties really wanted to enter into a completely open-ended government crisis. So they had an interest at some point in finding middle ground. Everybody was bargaining hard, and it took a very long time. This is Saad Hariri’s first attempt at government formation; it’s a complicated process. His father learned on the job, as well, and eventually got a lot quicker at it. I don’t think there was any particular decisive push. I think it just finally worked itself out where they could agree that they would be able to find a bit of common ground.
 
And what do you think are the implications for both the delay in forming the cabinet, and its ultimate shape?
 
It took great time and there was much stress, as it were. It’s a government where competing or opposing party groups are in the same government. I think this will not be a very effective government, or will not be able to make decisions very effectively, because if it took five months to form the government, it’s going to take a while to agree on a mission statement, and then possibly at every juncture, when a big political or policy decision needs to be made, the political rivalries which exist in the country will be reflected in the cabinet and they will have a very hard time making decisions. I think that this will be a somewhat hamstrung or paralyzed government, not able to accomplish very much.
 
What are the main issues that are awaiting this government?
 
Well, a number of issues. There are some that are political. An upcoming event is local elections; these need to be held in May, and that’s maybe the most pressing issue because there is a date for that. Some government decisions and some laws need to be passed in order to enable those elections to go forward. After those elections, there’s also a need to review, still in the political scene, administrative decentralization issues, which have been on the table for a long time and have not yet been addressed. This government, if it lasts, will also have to agree on a new parliamentary election law, which is a key point of difference among all of these parties. This government will also need to facilitate or create an environment for a successful resumption of the National Dialogue meetings. These are held not in the government, but at the presidential palace and are presided over by the president. But this government needs to create a mood that would enable such talks—which relate to a unified defense strategy, relate to Hezbollah’s arms and so on—to move forward. That’s rather challenging. On other issues, obviously there are those that are related to social and economic policy, primary among them is debt management. Lebanon has a large growing debt, and agreeing how to roll over and manage that debt, at a time when global financial markets are what they are, is going to be very challenging. And then there are two major sectors of the economy, the communications sector and the energy sector, which also need very serious attention, but they also might be points of disagreement between the different groups. So there are a number of issues that such a government would need to address.
 
And in the Doha agreement, there was talk of addressing Hezbollah’s arms, but do you see any likelihood of moving forward on such a conversation?
 
Not markedly, not decisively. But it is possible that in the National Dialogue meetings progress can be made on discussing a national defense strategy or possible coordination in a more effective way between the army and the resistance. Sort of steps—baby steps—in that direction, without really reaching disarmament, but possibly reaching confidence building measures, more transparency and more confidence that unmanaged events won’t lead to war, which is a prime concern of many Lebanese, as well as the international community.
 
In those terms, it seems like things are heating up a little on the Israeli-Lebanese border and senior Israeli officials have said that if Hezbollah does something, the whole Lebanese government is going to be held responsible for it. What do you foresee along that border?
 
The tension, as you remark, is high. Unless Hezbollah itself does something, in which case Israel would retaliate, I don’t foresee the tension that we’re seeing by itself leading to an escalation from the Israeli side in the immediate future. But I think Israel is doing two things—one, it’s eager to highlight any Hezbollah violations, to indicate, in general, why Israel is so security-conscious, why it’s not very lenient with other players in the region, like Syria, like Hamas and even Fatah. It likes to highlight that it has dangerous enemies around it to reinforce, sort of, its right-wing position. Second, Israel, in a sense, is preparing for the next war with Hezbollah—that war may or may not occur, but it is preparing for it, and certainly, gathering casus belli for it. A case against Hezbollah for Israel might come in handy in a year or two if Israel decides at that date to indeed launch another attack. So it is very worrisome, but I don’t think there’s anything imminent.
 
You spoke about the regional dynamics. How do you think that the lessening of tensions or better relations between the Saudis and the Syrians and the Syrians and the U.S. will affect this government and also its relationships with the different actors?
 
I think it’s already affected the situation in general in the country. Despite all the delay in forming a government the country has been calm, there have been no security incidents, the communal tensions even have been rather low and manageable. For such an extended political crisis one might have expected much worse. Despite the expected weakness or paralysis of this government, it is not currently accompanied by a sense of very high tension or fears of breakdown as happened in May of 2008. All of that is partially related to much better Syrian-Saudi relations and much better Syrian-American relations. It might also be somewhat dependent on a perception that even Iran may be talking with the West and the U.S.; that maybe this is a time for talking and accommodation. The fear or the risk is that if things go poorly between Iran and the U.S. or things break down between Syria and Saudi Arabia or Syria and the U.S., the reverse then might become true as well—that we might be affected. But for the time being it has a calming effect, although not necessarily one in which efficient governance can be implemented in the country, but at least it’s calm.
 
What kind of relationship are you expecting between Syria and this new Lebanese cabinet?
 
I would think it would be much better than it has been recently. It’s possible that the Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri might visit Damascus at some point. He had mentioned that he might do so after forming his government. Syria obviously has a lot of allies in this government, not only the March 8 players, but the president as well is quite close to Syria, and given close or improved Saudi-Syrian relations and the close relationship between Saad al-Hariri and Saudi Arabia, that means Saad’s orientation towards Syria will also be much more positive than it was previously. Also, Syria has been playing fairly ‘nice’ in Lebanon over the past year and a half; it is possible that Syria’s actions might revert to a more destructive approach if its relations with Saudi Arabia or the U.S. go bad again.
 
What do you think the implications of currently better Lebanese-Syrian relations are for the tribunal?
 
I don’t think it has direct implications at this point, in the sense that the tribunal is established in The Hague and it is awaiting the report of the investigator. I think most of that is out of the hands of the Lebanese at this point. A lot of questions, of course, are hinged on that, but I don’t think the political process in Lebanon is going to directly impact the tribunal one way or another at this point.
 
As you said, many people in the West saw the elections as a victory for March 14 and yet this new government includes Hezbollah as a component even if it doesn’t have a blocking third. What do you think the implications are for U.S.-Lebanese relations?
 
It’s kind of a middle-of-the-road position. I mean, even though March 14 won the election, the Lebanese political system is a communal system. Hezbollah and Amal won the Shiite votes. Shiites obviously are a major component of the state and always would have been, and there would have been strong participation by them because they are strong participants in the Lebanese state and the Lebanese system in general. So, although, there were quick readings of the elections that this might completely change the formula, the power-sharing system in Lebanon makes that very hard to implement. I don’t think it’s much of a surprise for those who followed it closely to know that in the end there would have to be some form of power sharing. It ended up in this particular formula, but it’s still the case that the Shiite community has a large influence, and more importantly Hezbollah as an armed group, if it doesn’t get its way through institutions, gets its way by other means, as it did last May. I think the U.S. administration, even at the end of the Bush years, recognized the complexity of the Lebanese situation, and this administration acknowledges this reality as well. U.S. support for Lebanon, which is mainly support for the Lebanese army, I think will continue and will not be greatly affected by the makeup of the new government. The logic for continuing to do so still prevails with this administration. The support is not massive, so I don’t think it will be a major issue; the U.S. government will definitely deal with this government rather positively. Saad al-Hariri is an old friend and ally, and the U.S. is certainly not going to walk away.
 
People talk a lot about building the institutions of the state. Do you see the possibility of that really happening?
 
There are different institutions that are in different situations of being built or not. We have two main sets of challenges. The main lack is a lack of real sovereignty, which relates to the Lebanese army and the security services and their inability to, shall we say, control the borders and to control all of Lebanese territory, mainly because of the presence of Hezbollah and because of Syria’s dominance over the Syrian-Lebanese border, which Lebanon has not been able to counter. That is a major problem that will not be addressed any time soon because of the presence of Hezbollah, its overwhelming military force, and the massive support from Syria and Iran—that is going to be with us for the immediate future.
 
Now the other challenge is to try to reform the confessional nature of the system towards something less confessional. There are a lot of ideas out there. I don’t expect dramatic movement in that direction, but we could see a little bit of movement. That little bit of movement might include a new election law, which might include some proportional representation for the first time, which would help. And the president has also discussed forming a national committee to begin discussing de-confessionalization. So, we might see some baby steps, but nothing dramatic.
End of document
Source http://carnegie-mec.org/2009/11/17/view-from-beirut-interview-with-paul-salem/b3r4

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