Lebanon’s Shadowy Cabinet

Beirut's Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the seat of the Lebanese government. (Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images)

Beirut's Ottoman-era Grand Serail, the seat of the Lebanese government. (Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images)

Ten car bombings in less than six months, a quasi-civil war in Tripoli, and Syrian air raids on border towns have not yet convinced some of Lebanon's politicians of the urgent need to form a cabinet. The political deadlock continues, ten months after the appointment of Tammam Salam as prime minister-designate, over a disagreement on the assigning of ministerial portfolios in the long-awaited national unity government.

Formation was earlier shelved after the anti-Syrian regime coalition, March 14, said it would not join a cabinet with Hezbollah unless the party quits fighting in Syria. In an unexpected twist, Saad Al-Hariri, the leader of March 14’s largest parliamentary bloc, recently said that he believed national interest trumps politics and agreed to join a cabinet with the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance. Hariri's only condition was that the party endorses the June 2012 Baabda Declaration, a statement issued after a round of national dialogue between the March 14 and March 8 blocs under the auspices of President Michel Suleiman. The declaration’s signatories endorse neutrality on Syria. Hezbollah MPs welcomed Hariri’s cabinet stance, which was perceived as a sign that the party intends to withdraw from Syria. This is a step that many Lebanese endorse and consider the cornerstone for the country’s future neutrality and stability.

Another Hariri win was that Hezbollah agreed to join a cabinet even after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon began to try four men accused of murdering the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The four suspects all have links to Hezbollah.

Following these positive developments Salam looked very close to presenting a line-up for parliamentary approval, but then another hurdle popped up. This time Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is allied with March 8, insisted that his son-in-law keep the energy portfolio, which is expected to become one of the most lucrative once Lebanon begins exporting its offshore oil and gas. But Salam has said that no portfolios will be reserved for any one sect, and that the ministries would be reshuffled and equally distributed on his watch.

While the politicking continues, many argue that Aoun’s real intent is to win the endorsement of his March 8 allies for the presidential elections due later this year. Aoun “is anxious because his March 8 allies have yet to endorse him as their candidate—the solution, for him, is to ratchet up tension on side issues such as portfolios, and to hell with the consequences,” wrote Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.

And “to hell” indeed. Since Hariri’s announcement and Aoun’s obstruction nearly three weeks ago, Hezbollah has remained embroiled in the Syrian conflict, provoking Sunni Islamist groups to show up in Lebanon and try to hit the party where it hurts most: in the residential areas of its civilian supporters.

Aoun’s obstruction has also raised eyebrows with some politicians, who are now publically stating that the move was inspired by regional patrons Bashar Al-Assad and Iran. If this proves to be the case, then Hezbollah, which is also instructed by Assad and Iran, might have been bluffing by accepting the formation of a national unity cabinet with Hariri on board, while knowing that others from within the alliance would eventually bring the government down.

The coming weeks will reveal whether the Assad–Iran alliance is instructing its protégés to play good cop/bad cop, or whether Hezbollah is in fact genuine in its manoeuvring, which may even lead to a withdrawal of its fighters from Syria and much-needed neutrality in Lebanon.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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