BEIRUT // After a creative solution to the opposition's main demand of veto power over major cabinet decisions was reached earlier this week, the Lebanese political elite immediately moved to the next stage of cabinet negotiations: stubbornly fighting for control of key ministries in the new government.
A host of conflicts over which party or sect should control which ministry - and the patronage opportunities that come with that control - by yesterday had greatly diminished hope that a deal could be struck before a national holiday on August 1. Both opposition and majority political figures have said that they expect the process could take as long as another week, barring some unexpected breakthrough.
One of the biggest problems appears to be the deteriorating relationship between former army chief of staff Michel Aoun, who controls a significant part of parliament, and the rest of Lebanon's political community. In a television appearance on Wednesday, Mr Aoun criticised his Shiite allies in Hizbollah and the Amal Movement for agreeing with the incoming prime minister Saad Hariri on a cabinet that shares 15 seats with the majority, 10 with the opposition and five independent seats aligned with president Michel Sleiman.
Mr Aoun appeared furious that his allies had not consulted him before making the agreement and further demanded a personal meeting with Mr Hariri before agreeing to participate in a cabinet. His demands for a proportional share of seats in the cabinet - he claims his votes in parliament translate into at least seven seats - are unlikely to be met as Hizbollah and Amal have already divided up five of the opposition seats for themselves, and Mr Hariri's bloc seems unwilling to offer their staunchest enemy in the Christian community any of their own seats.
After a week in which he demanded control, variously, of the ministries of interior, finance and telecommunications, Mr Aoun has now settled on insisting that his son-in-law, Jibran Bassil, remain in charge of telecommunications, a position coveted by Mr Hariri's Future Movement. The government-owned mobile network generates much of Lebanon's tax revenue and its privatisation in order to reduce what are some of the world's highest mobile phone rates will be a critical battle for the new government.
Despite Lebanon's political tradition of humoUring disgruntled political players, it is unclear whether Mr Aoun has enough political leverage to extract what he wants from these negotiations. With the opposition's loss in June making his more than 20 seats in parliament unnecessary to govern and his allies already having cut a deal with the majority for seats in the cabinet, his last option appears to be a threat to refuse to participate. But with several Christian parties available to fill any open seats, his threat to leave does not carry the same weight as a boycott by his Shiite allies, who have a much more unified political operation than Lebanon's Christians.
As the various political factions continued to haggle over seats, the two critical ministries appear ready to remain in the hands of President Sleiman. Barring a further breakdown of talks, the president is reportedly ready to leave Ziad Baroud as interior minister and Elias Murr as defence minister. A civil society lawyer with no real ties to any political movement, Mr Baroud is extremely popular after his much-lauded handling of the contentious parliamentary election in June.
General reaction to the impasse was muted, with most people ignoring the deliberations and a few complaining about the electricity rationing and traffic. "They finally agreed on one formation and it's looking like the most decent so far there should be nothing stopping them from naming ministers and calling a new government," said Ibrahim, 58, a butcher in Aisha Bakker. "They need to stop taking so much time and give us a functioning government. There are things in the country that need to be taken care of, like electricity outages and gasoline prices.
"I went to the electricity company and complained about the power outages and they apologised and told me to wait for a new energy minister." email@example.com