x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Decent choice by Lebanon but will it be a false dawn?

As Lebanon enters a potentially critical phase in its short history, it could do worse than choose an essentially decent man from a family with a strong and respected political tradition. But decency sometimes is not enough.

Much is at stake in the cabinet selections of Tamam Salam, Lebanon's newly appointed prime minister. Anwar Amro / AFP
Much is at stake in the cabinet selections of Tamam Salam, Lebanon's newly appointed prime minister. Anwar Amro / AFP

Tamam Salam, the MP and former culture minister, has been nominated as Lebanon's 69th prime minister. Mr Salam's father, Saeb Salam, who had a penchant for buttonholes, held the position four times. His cousin, Selim Salam, an Anglophile and the president of the Beirut Golf Club, was the chairman of Middle East Airlines, while another cousin, Nawaf Salam, is Lebanon's ambassador to the United Nations. The Salams are big cheeses.

The appointment was the easy part. He now has to form a cabinet and it could take months. There will be an almighty scrap over who gets the energy ministry, especially in light of Lebanon's decision last year to exploit its considerable oil and gas reserves that lie just off its coast.

It is unlikely that Mr Salam will still be prime minister when the first oil and gas is extracted, some time in 2017, but the extent of the power struggle created by this new industry is already very apparent as the horse trading to name a new cabinet starts in earnest.

Once defined by Lebanon's shockingly decrepit national grid and all that was wrong with the public sector, the energy ministry is now the poster boy for a new age of prosperity - national, sectarian and, dare I say it, personal. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a cash cow.

Two hundred companies, including Rosneft and ExxonMobil, have so far applied to tender bids to drill, and only last week the caretaker energy minister Gebran Bassil, who belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), signed a contract with the American firm Ion Geophysical to go almost twice the current exploration depth under the seabed, presumably to look for even more reserves.

Michel Aoun, the former army general and leader of the FPM, will fight to the last man to ensure his party keeps the energy portfolio. He will claim the FPM's anti-corruption and anti-nepotism ticket - even if Mr Bassil is his son-in-law - makes his party best positioned to protect arguably the biggest windfall in Lebanon's short history.

The March 14 parliamentary bloc is already doing its best to ensure that Mr Aoun does not get his way, arguing that the finance, telecom and energy ministries should be rotated among the various political parties, as part of its call to create a government of technocrats.

Hizbollah, and to a lesser extent the Amal movement, also have a stake. As part of their rhetoric, both parties have made pledges that the Shia, Lebanon's most populous, and arguably, most powerful sect, will benefit from the new oil and gas wealth.

Historically Lebanon's underclass, they will expect much of the revenues, to be used to develop Shia areas, especially south Lebanon.

Hizbollah will no doubt sell this brave new age within its resistance framework. The Party of God will be looking to life after the inevitable fall of the Assad regime, finding ways to reinvent itself while maintaining, if possible, the whiff of martial strength.

This it might do by claiming to protect Lebanon's resources from what it will claim to be Zionist designs on Lebanon's natural assets. So watch out for the veiled threats on Israel's own oil and gas installations should tensions rise.

Hizbollah will have to tread a fine line. It must be careful that any anti-Israeli posturing doesn't cost it public support and put off international investors who might feel that dealing with the Lebanese is simply too much of a headache.

As Lebanon enters a potentially critical phase in its short history, it could do worse than choose an essentially decent man from a family with a strong and respected political tradition. Already, the Beirut Stock Exchange is showing signs of renewed energy, but with so much at stake, we must be careful that this is not yet another false dawn. Decency sometimes isn't enough.

 

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut