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Debate: Lebanon's new government is not the result of new understandings - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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It was as though a magic wand passed over the leaders of Lebanon, softening their stances allowing the new government to be formed. This national government of contradictions drowned for nearly 11 months, indicating to some that it would never even see the light of day. But, contrary to expectations, the impossible occurred and a government was formed. It could only have been magic, wielded on more than one level and by more than one party.

With the Syrian crisis entering its fourth year—and even before the crisis broke—Lebanon is and has been and will continue to be a regional and international hitching post. It was difficult to make any political achievements without appealing abroad. With this new government, the landscape became more complex, the number of parties grew and opinions on the issues diverged wildly.

At the local level, the main Lebanese political groups set down crippling conditions for their participation in government—the March 8 Alliance would not give up veto power, the March 14 Alliance would not accept Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian war and the Future Movement insisted on keeping its members at the helm of the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Communications with their “it’s us or nobody” mentality.

Regarding the second column, including independent politicians, it was impossible to smooth out MP Boutros Harb’s rough edges. He accuses Hezbollah of protecting the person suspected of booby-trapping his office’s elevator in an attempted assassination. He and his fellow party leaders still use that same elevator today. The Phalange Party wants ministerial portfolios and to wield the resultant power, but it also wants to stay part of the opposition. Participating in the government would increase the party’s size, and participating in the opposition would allow the group to compete with the Lebanese Armed Forces on what remains of the Christian street.

Here, political forces have taken a step backwards. The Future Movement agreed to submit the conflict to the Cabinet, instead of leaving it a nervous hostage to street thugs; the Free Patriotic Movement contingent led by Michel Aoun agreed to take half of the two ministries as a consolation prize. Politicians—who missed the chance to release some of the pressure built up by the Syrian crisis through delayed parliamentary elections—could not bear to postpone yet more elections.

This magic was so potent because of fear and desire. The Aounists fear the presidential vacuum that threatens the position of the president itself, in the current sense of the word; they also fear that the Future Movement could transform former Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s one-color government into a presidential council. Hezbollah hopes to subdue the country politically to the extent that it decreases the constituency of resistance within its own audience, obfuscates its opposition, and contains its losses in Syria.

On the security front, sectarian mobilization and transnational terrorism is a threat the government cannot sufficiently confront. It has become crucial to create a political environment where preventing an uptick in suicide bombings and absorbing the popular reaction is possible. In this regard, a concession from the March 8 Alliance regarding the ministries that handle security—the Ministries of the Interior, Justice, Defense and Communications—would perhaps prove useful. Passing on responsibility for the security failure to someone else is better than keeping the job and its attendant blame, even if that job is advantageous.

The deteriorating security situation, coupled with the economic decline signified by the falling Lebanese pound and decreased output across a number of sectors, became evident in recent days. This came very close to precipitating a descent into complete chaos—sinking the ship with all souls lost—unless a strong and sufficiently legitimate government were able to step in.

At the regional level—and this is a prominent factor—the failure of Geneva II has become complete, as the Syrian crisis extends into the future without any radical change expected on the ground. The crisis’s persistence has threatened to move the war into Lebanese territory, transforming the conflict into a regional tug-of-war with the participation of Israel and other countries. This would mean the war was permanently out of control, and it is apparent that nobody is in favor of a confrontation of this type. The international community is pleased with the tentative mutual understanding between Iran and the US and with the Iran–Turkey rapprochement. The Gulf is reorienting itself towards the administration of US President Barack Obama, reinforcing the total war on terrorism that has become “Global Public Enemy Number One.” Thus the regional and international inclination is to resolve resolvable issues in order to stymie additional tension and facilitate solutions.

With the oil sector, it has become clear that Lebanon delayed securing the requirements for entry into the oil market, and these requirements cannot be satisfied by the one-color government. Nothing save a universal national government can manage national wealth. Otherwise, “management” will be a polite term for “seizure,” especially as the potential amount of oil investments in Lebanon is astronomical: some estimates give a value of 1.5 trillion US dollars or more. Thus Lebanon’s oil could become a local, regional and even international issue before we even consider the fact that the country is placed along transnational power transmission lines. Oil is a coward, however, unable to bring profit save in stable political environments able to guarantee continuous long-term production and protection of investments.

It is true that Prime Minister Tamman Salam’s new government will not last longer than three months, at which point it will become a caretaker government—if presidential elections run smoothly. But it was formed in extremely complicated circumstances, and both regional and local considerations certainly intervened. It is impossible to say that the reasons behind its formation were a hundred percent of Lebanese creation, although it is true to say that the deal could not have been reached without Lebanese participation and enthusiasm, at minimum for saving the country from the flames of explosive rhetoric. But since the individual actors in the government’s formation are diverse and varied, the government remains vulnerable to all possibilities.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.

Mounir Khatib

Mounir Khatib

Mounir Khatib is a Lebanese writer and the editor-in-chief of the Mokhtar website.

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