BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon’s rival Saudi- and Syrian-backed political blocs have been negotiating for nearly seven weeks on the make-up of a new unity government but analysts say the calm tone of the talks means there is no crisis, at least for now.
The Saudi- and Western-backed alliance led by Sunni Muslim leader Saad Hariri won a clear majority in the 128-seat parliament in a June 7 general election, defeating the rival Syrian- and Iranian-backed alliance led by Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
But after his designation as prime minister on June 27, Hariri agreed to form a new unity government with his rivals to replace the one formed after deadly unrest in May last year.
The talks have dragged on amid feuding over the portfolios to be allocated to the rival camps, but the head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre, Paul Salem, said he saw no cause for immediate concern.
“All of Lebanon’s complicated coalition governments have taken a fair amount of time to come together — this is not unusual,” he said.
He said a thaw in Syria’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the West had helped the rival camps to step back from the dangerous animosities that saw Hezbollah fighters occupy parts of Sunni west Beirut last year.
“A few years ago the two alliances were at each others’ throats and their foreign backers were at war. Today the situation is relatively calmer,” Salem said.
Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi told AFP he saw “no major obstacles” to the talks.
Ammar Houry, an MP in Hariri’s Saudi-backed bloc, agreed: “There is no doubt Syrian-Saudi rapprochement has had a positive effect on the cabinet formation.
“But there are also internal details that must be dealt with,” he told AFP.
He was referring to political manoeuvrings within the rival camps that have complicated the allocation of portfolios despite agreement on the number that each side will get.
Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun — a key Hezbollah ally who holds 27 of the alliance’s 57 seats — has made a number of demands that the majority bloc is unwilling to accede to.
“Categorically, General Aoun is obstructing the cabinet formation,” Houry told AFP.
“He wants his son-in-law (former telecommunications minister Gibran Bassil) to be given a ministry again, first and foremost. Secondly, he wants key portfolios.”
Bassil failed to win a parliamentary seat in the June election and the majority insists that it will only agree to ministers who have proven they have the confidence of the electors.
Aoun has hit back, telling a local television channel on Thursday that it was the majority that was delaying the formation of the cabinet because it had to regularly “consult with its foreign backers”.
The so-called March 14 majority bloc has its own internal problems.
Last week, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a loyal member of the Hariri camp for the past four years, announced that he “could no longer continue” because its alliance with right-wing Christian factions conflicted with the leftist principles of his Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).
Jumblatt later backtracked, announcing he would “fully support” Hariri in forming the new government.
But Salem said that the Druze leader’s political acrobatics had undermined Hariri’s confidence in the loyalty of his party’s PSP’s 11 MPs to the 71-MP alliance, all the more so as it will take a share of the alliance’s cabinet seats.
“The problem for March 14 is that a few of the 15 seats they are getting go to Jumblatt, and even if he says he’s with them, he’s not and he doesn’t consult with them,” the analyst said.
“They no longer feel those seats are reliable.”
The issue will be crucial to the balance of power in the new cabinet with the Hezbollah alliance set to have 10 of its 30 ministers and President Michel Sleiman to appoint the other five.
If Sleiman is even-handed in his appointments and Jumblatt’s ministers do end up sitting on the fence, Hariri’s majority in cabinet could be threatened.