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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Facing deadlock, Lebanese president assumes conciliatory role

Michel Aoun rejects Hezbollah demand that new government include an allied Sunni MP

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the presidential palace. AFP
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the presidential palace. AFP

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has pushed back against attempts by Hezbollah to delay the formation of a government, in spite of his long-standing alliance with the country’s strongest Shiite group.

The decision by Mr Aoun to back Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in his refusal to cede seats to Hezbollah’s Sunni allies in a new governing coalition — a last-minute demand by the Shiite group — is not likely to shake a 12-year-old pact between his Free Patriotic Movement and the country’s strongest political party.

However, his televised speech on Wednesday night marked a momentary repositioning for the Lebanese president, who is trying to place himself at equal distance from rival parties backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

There is no indication that Mr Aoun’s latest position will be sustained, Mr Nader said, but his comments do suggest that he is at least temporarily “assuming the role of an arbiter between these two groups”.

Rival political parties in Lebanon have been in disagreement since May’s parliamentary election over the distribution of key ministerial portfolios and the number of cabinet seats allocated to each group, hampering attempts by Mr Hariri to form a governing coalition.

Earlier this week, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said that he accepted a compromise in the distribution of Christian seats between the LF and the FPM, clearing the main hurdle to government formation.

Hezbollah, however, posed a new challenge for Mr Hariri shortly after by demanding the prime minister cede a seat to one of its Sunni allies. Mr Hariri categorically refused. Officials allied with the Future Movement leader characterised Hezbollah’s demand as an attempt to undermine the prime minister and delay the formation of a governing coalition.

“The obstruction is not justified and using delays as a political tactic harms the national interest,” Mr Aoun said on Wednesday, without naming the group stalling progress. “We don’t want to weaken the prime minister. On the contrary, he must be strong because the responsibility placed on him is a big one.”

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told The National that Mr Aoun’s comments should be read as a message to Hezbollah.

“Aoun is telling them that they are harassing the prime minister and that they should back off and let the man succeed in forming his cabinet,” Mr Khashan said.

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The president also said that the ceding of seats to Hezbollah's Sunni allies ran contrary to the logic of cabinet formation, which rests on distributing seats among established political blocs.

The six independent Sunni MP’s backed by Hezbollah, however, are individuals and do not constitute one unified political grouping, Mr Aoun said. Rather, they each belong to different political parties, many of which have already decided on who would be representing them in a new government.

Mr Hariri welcomed the president’s comments in a statement posted on Twitter, describing Mr Aoun’s speech as “truthful, honest and responsible”.

Mr Aoun’s backing of the prime minister has thrown the ball back in Hezbollah’s court and Lebanon could be on the brink of a protracted standoff, considering the group is not known to concede easily.

However, the usual horse trading of Lebanese politics does leave some room for compromise.

“The hurdles facing the formation of a cabinet will linger from some time to come, after all Hezbollah has made a commitment to its Sunni allies that they will be represented,” Mr Khashan said. “They will have to find a formula to accommodate them.”

A possible compromise would be for Mr Aoun to appoint one of the Hezbollah-allied Sunnis within a group of ministers named by the head of state. Another option would be for the Shiite Amal party to cede one if its seats to Hezbollah-allied Sunnis to end the deadlock. However, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is also the head of the Amal movement, suggested this week that he would not give up any post.