First of all, this is a “consensus government,” which means that Lebanon’s two main political blocs, the March 14 and March 8 coalitions, are supposed to share power. The March 14 coalition is dominated by Sunni Muslims and Christians, backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other nations, and aligned with the opposition in Syria. The March 8 coalition is dominated by Shia Muslims and Christians, backed by Syria and Iran, and supports President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the Syrian civil war.
Both of these coalitions get eight seats in the new cabinet, with another eight appointed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam (a Sunni who is vaguely anti-Assad) and President Michel Suleiman (a Maronite Christian who is vaguely pro-Assad). This last bloc also includes two loyalists of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has drifted between the camps and is now positioned as a centrist parliamentary kingmaker.
Double Veto Power
Now, it gets even more complicated. Two of the ministers in the “neutral” bloc of eight appointed by Salam and Suleiman are in fact not neutral at all. The retired colonel Abdul-Muttaleb al-Hennawi, a Shiite who is now minister of youth and sports, is a de facto March 8 loyalist, while Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, a Sunni from Tripoli, is close to March 14. This grants each bloc nine votes, which is enough to paralyze the government by vetoing decisions. So this will really be a consensus government, since it will be unable to make decisions not approved by both blocs.
The veto principle is good, since it’s the reason why all parties agreed to participate. But it’s also bad because the government will surely collapse at the first real disagreement. It means that there is unfortunately little hope of long-term stability for Lebanon with this cabinet—it has been created for the short term, to stabilize the country and prepare for the upcoming presidential elections.
The Future Movement Scores Big
Salam’s government replaces the cabinet of Najib Mikati, a businessman from Tripoli who had long-standing links to Damascus. He led a March 8–dominated cabinet in which Hezbollah’s influence was overwhelming.
The new government seems slightly tilted in favor of Assad’s rivals. March 14’s main component, the Sunni party known as the Future Movement, picks up some major portfolios, including the ministries of interior, justice, and telecommunications. (The latter will be held by Maronite politician Boutros Harb, who is informally aligned with the Future Movement.)
The combination of the justice and telecommunications ministries is interesting, to say the least. The UN-appointed Special Tribunal for Lebanon just began its trial in absentia of Hezbollah members suspected of arranging the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Rafik Hariri was the father of Saad Hariri, the current Future Party leader, and his death has been blamed by March 14 and Future Movement supporters on Hezbollah, the Assad regime, or both. And, as it happens, the special tribunal’s case is largely based on telecommunication intercepts.
The justice portfolio will go to the Future Movement’s Ashraf Rifi, which is also significant. Rifi is a well-known Sunni strongman from the northern town of Tripoli with links to Sunni political and militant movements there, including some Islamist factions involved with the uprising in Syria. He will now oversee the trials of suspected members in the Fatah al-Islam jihadi movement and could use his ministry to negotiate the release from a Saudi prison of Abu Bakr Hammoud, a jihadi with strong support among radicals in Tripoli. The Interior Ministry serves a similar function because of its role in the intelligence and police apparatus.
The Future Movement’s Fraying Base
At the same time, the Future Movement is in trouble with its Sunni popular base. The party doesn’t want to be seen as complicit in the Syrian conflict’s spillover into Lebanon or associated problems, such as terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Saad Hariri’s speech on the occasion of his father’s death, on February 14, clearly stated that he will not drag the Sunnis into a new Lebanese civil war. But radicalism and militant anti-Shiism are brewing on the grassroots level in some Sunni areas—particularly in Lebanon’s “Sunni capital,” Tripoli, which has been deeply affected by the war in Syria and where many resent any form of deal with Hezbollah.
If Rifi cannot bring concrete results soon to Tripoli’s inhabitants, it’s likely that the Future Movement will become irrelevant among street-level political actors there. Gunmen from the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood have already threatened Saad Hariri and said they will burn Future Movement offices in retaliation for his “betrayal” of Sunni interests.
A Limited Role for Hezbollah
The March 8 coalition’s dominant player, Hezbollah, gets two rather weak ministries in Salam’s cabinet. But this is in line with Hezbollah’s political traditions and almost certainly a deliberate choice.
The Shia militia has instead sought gains for its coalition partners to empower them politically and retain their support. The new cabinet raises the profile of Gebran Bassil considerably by making him minister of foreign affairs. Bassil is a Maronite Christian and viewed as a likely successor of the strong but aging General Michel Aoun, the lynchpin of Hezbollah’s Christian support. Likewise, the Assad-backed Shia of the Amal Movement get the finance, public works, and transport ministries, even though Amal is clearly the lesser of the two Shia movements in Lebanon.
That Hezbollah is willing to accept Rifi as a minister and hand both the justice and interior portfolios to its archrivals in the Future Movement are clear signs of the party’s predicament. Already deeply entangled in the Syrian war, it worries that it will have to deal with internal strife at the same time. Hezbollah therefore seems prepared to pay a hefty price to keep Lebanon quiet for the time being, trading some March 8 influence for much-needed short-term domestic political stability.
A Saudi-Iranian Deal?
Given Lebanon’s long history as an arena for proxy conflict, many will surely interpret the successful formation of a new cabinet as evidence of a shift in international politics. Particularly, this will be portrayed as Saudi Arabia finally agreeing to negotiate with Iran over its role in the Middle East, in a realignment forced by U.S. President Barack Obama’s bet on a nuclear deal with Iran last November.
This is not necessarily the case. Insofar as the new cabinet reflects a Saudi-Iranian understanding, it seems more like a short- to medium-term agreement between both powers to continue confronting each other in Syria while leaving Lebanon quiet for now. Both hold major stakes in Lebanon, and neither wants to bet it all at the moment. Furthermore, a full-scale political breakdown in Lebanon would only serve to complicate the Syrian conflict, which is difficult enough as it is.
All in all, we are seeing clear signs that Syria is now progressively replacing Lebanon as the region’s geopolitical chessboard. This means more, not less, Saudi and Iranian involvement in Syria—and it means that Lebanese politics will increasingly be viewed through a Syrian lens.
Lebanese Government Ministers (Ministry, Party, Sect)
Centrist and Nonaligned
- Tammam Salam (Prime Minister, Sunni)
- Samir Moqbel (Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister, nominated by the Prime Minister, Greek Orthodox)
- Mohammad Mashnouq (Minister of the Environment, nominated by the Prime Minister, Sunni)
- Ramzi Joreige (Minister of Information, nominated by the President, Greek Orthodox)
- Alice Shabtini (Minister of Displaced Persons, nominated by the President, Maronite)
- Abdul-Muttaleb al-Hennawi (Minister of Youth and Sports, nominated by the President, Shia)
- Akram Shehayyeb (Minister of Agriculture, Progressive Socialist Party, Druze)
- Wael Abu Faour (Minister of Health, Progressive Socialist Party, Druze)
The March 8 Coalition (Backed by Syria and Iran)
- Gebran Bassil (Minister of Foreign Affairs, Free Patriotic Movement, Maronite)
- Ali Hasan Khalil (Minister of Finance, Amal, Shia)
- Arthur Nazarian (Minister of Energy, Tashnaq, Armenian Orthodox)
- Ghazi Zoaiter (Minister of Public Works, Amal, Shia)
- Mohammed Fneish (Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Hezbollah, Shia)
- Hussein Hajj Hasan (Minister of Industry, Hezbollah, Shia)
- Elias Abu Saab (Minister of Education, Free Patriotic Movement, Maronite)
- Remon Areiji (Minister of Culture, Marada, Maronite)
The March 14 Coalition (Backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States)
- Nuhad Mashnouq (Minister of Interior, Future Movement, Sunni)
- Ashraf Rifi (Minister of Justice, Future Movement, Sunni)
- Alain Hakim (Minister of Economy and Trade, Phalanges, Catholic)
- Boutros Harb (Minister of Telecommunications, March 14, Maronite)
- Michel Pharaon (Minister of Tourism, March 14, Greek Catholic)
- Nabil de Freij (Minister of Administrative Reform, Future Movement, Roman Catholic)
- Rashid Derbas (Minister of Social Affairs, Future Movement, Sunni)
- Sejaan Azzi (Minister of Labor, Phalanges, Maronite)