Lebanon’s politics are becoming about as predictable as molecules in an atom smasher. After three months of fruitless negotiations, the efforts of Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to form a cabinet remain at square one. The parliament remains unable to fill a quorum due to a cyclical boycott by more than half of its members at any given time. Meanwhile, the March 8 alliance between Hezbollah, Amal, and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has dissolved, with all parties trying to pull the latter’s influential leader Michel Aoun in their direction.
Impasses at Lebanon’s highest levels of government threaten to institutionalize a leadership vacuum at a time when the country is barely able keep the floodgates of violence from the Syrian war closed. Amidst this political tumult, Lebanon’s most potent political player, Hezbollah, is finding itself increasingly isolated.
On July 10, the March 8 alliance dissolved after the FPM withdrew, citing differences on domestic issues with Shi’ite alliance members Amal and Hezbollah. Tensions between the FPM and Hezbollah have increased in recent months over numerous issues, including the extension of the parliament’s term in June 2013, the extension of military chief Jean Qawaji’s term in September 2013, and to an extent, Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict. March 8 was previously criticized for blocking Salam’s cabinet formation over its insistence to maintain veto rights, a demand which has now been shelved.
With the veto issue out of the way, Hezbollah’s inclusion in the next cabinet has now become a major point of contention. Lebanese Forces party leader Samir Geagea (part of the March 14 alliance) recently stated that a cabinet which includes the group would endanger Lebanon’s position in the international community and the region. Leaders from the Shi’ite Amal, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, and FPM have since insisted that excluding Hezbollah would be detrimental for Lebanon’s stability. This debate over Hezbollah’s participation comes ahead of a key European Union meeting on July 18 which could result in an unprecedented branding of the Shi’ite group as a terrorist organization.
Since the collapse of March 8, efforts by the March 14 alliance to isolate Hezbollah and exclude it from the next cabinet have intensified, focusing on incentivizing Michel Aoun and the FPM join. In the coming week, Aoun will travel to Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the March 14 alliance for consultations, while also holding meetings with Hezbollah. March 14’s efforts have drawn negative reactions from the Hezbollah allies such as the Amal party (13 seats), along with other factions who believe that Hezbollah’s exclusion from government will lead to a major destabilization in Lebanon.
International pressure plays an ever-crucial role in Lebanon’s cabinet formation efforts, particularly with regard to Hezbollah’s exclusion. Any future European Union decision to blacklist Hezbollah will embolden March 14 alliance members to maintain their position against Hezbollah’s inclusion by bolstering their warnings of international isolation.
Hezbollah has limited options available to maintain the loyalty of its non-Shi’ite allies and prevent its exclusion from the next government. These options include siding with Michel Aoun on its refusal to extend the term of Lebanese military chief Jean Qawaji, announcing a withdrawal of its forces from the Syrian conflict, or threatening to destabilize Lebanon. The first option is the most convenient; as Hezbollah understands that the continued support of a large non-Shi’ite party like the FPM will entice centrist parties to insist on an inclusive government. A withdrawal from the Syrian conflict would only come about with Iranian approval, with such an approval granted on grounds that the Assad regime can accomplish its goals on its own or with increased Iranian support. The last option is always on the table, but given that much of Hezbollah’s military and political capital has been spent in Syria, taking responsibility for igniting sectarian conflict in Lebanon is hardly worth it unless absolutely necessary.
In the event that all sides refuse to compromise on their positions regarding the cabinet composition, Salam may resort to political maneuvering to establish a de-facto cabinet. Reports indicate that Salam is weighing putting a March 14-only cabinet to a vote in parliament, with the understanding that the motion will fail by at least five votes. Despite failing to win a vote of confidence in parliament, Salam could theoretically declare his cabinet as one with caretaker status, similar to the current caretaker government of Najib Mikati. Such a move has been criticized as unconstitutional, although an approval by President Suleiman could validate such a move. Suleiman is reportedly becoming increasingly favorable to this option, citing his increasing willingness to bring an end to the current impasse.
Under current conditions, any move by Salam to form a de-facto government which excludes major centrist and former March 8 alliance members will increase sectarian tensions in the country. Hezbollah, Amal, and possibly the FPM would likely boycott parliamentary proceedings, whilst the Shi’ite community may engage in labor strikes, protests, or possible violence. That said, a compromise that affords Hezbollah a spot in the cabinet would spawn protests in Sunni communities nationwide, especially if Hezbollah’s militiamen have not withdrawn from Syria by that time.
At this stage, it is difficult to decipher what’s more dangerous for Lebanon, forming a cabinet or letting the current political deadlock continue as the new status quo until the storm of the Syrian conflict blows over one way or the other. One thing seems to be certain, in that a continued leadership vacuum at such a tense period will ultimately lead to a decrease in confidence toward Lebanon’s governing system and the authority of state security forces.
Cohesion within state security forces is crucial to preventing an outbreak of violence among sectarian lines at a time when some Sunni communities are openly celebrating bombing attacks in Shi’ite areas, such as that which occurred in Beirut’s Dahiye area on July 9. In this context, the failure to resolve the dispute over the extension of military chief Qawaji’s term threatens an additional leadership vacuum in the state security apparatus following numerous other resignations.
Currently, it seems as though the only thing holding Lebanon’s political system and the military together are fears of a full-blown civil war in their absence. However, with each passing day that Lebanon’s major factions fail to compromise, this system erodes even more, bringing the country closer and closer to catastrophe.