x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hariri has second try at coalition building

Lebanon's parliament will review cabinet choices as the prime minister-designate gets a boost from the easing of tensions between regional rivals.

Beirut // The incoming Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, yesterday began a second attempt to form a national unity cabinet after seeing his chances bolstered by an unexpected meeting between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Syria. Mr Hariri was reappointed prime minister-designate last week for the second time since his March 14 coalition won June's parliamentary elections with the heavy financial and political backing of the Saudis. He had previously resigned the post after failing to come to an agreement with the Syrian-backed opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hizbollah. Parliament will deliberate on the composition of a cabinet for five days before Mr Hariri will again attempt to form a government Mr Hariri and his Saudi patrons have long accused the Syrian regime of ordering the assassination of Saad's father, Rafiq Hariri, a multi-billionaire businessman with close Saudi ties who was widely expected to return to office before he was killed in early 2005. An easing of the tensions between key regional powers Syria and Saudi Arabia would bode well for a political breakthrough in Lebanon, where both the majority and opposition have unusually strong loyalties to outside powers. "President Assad's visit to the kingdom is an important step upon which we must build," said Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's current caretaker prime minister and a close ally of both Hariris, told reporters in Saudi Arabia. The first attempt to form a national unity cabinet that incorporates all rivals into one functioning government is seen as a necessary, if elusive, approach to governing Lebanon's many fractious political and sectarian parties. With 18 officially recognised religious groups all entitled to a divided share of political power, while bitterly divided over Hizbollah's unwillingness to disarm, would make it unrealistic for the majority to rule without the minority's consent. But after three months of deadlocked talks that finally collapsed over the specific allocation of ministries to the various factions, Mr Hariri's political challenges are expected to continue unless outside powers nudge both sides to compromise. "I don't know what the outcome of this second effort will be," said Paul Salem, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Centre at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Things have not got any easier for the incoming prime minister and I don't see the internal forces at play to break the deadlock," he continued. "The responsibility should fall to President [Michel] Suleiman but he clearly cannot do it. In the absence of domestic pressure, external influence can take on a prominent role." A series of meetings by international authorities, including the current UN meetings, the forthcoming G20 summit and the possibility of direct talks between the Palestinians, Israelis and Syrians could all offer opportunities to pressure the backers of various Lebanese factions to compromise. Elias Muhanna, a writer and political analyst on Lebanese political affairs based in Beirut and affiliated with Harvard, agrees that international pressure is probably necessary but ascribes the need to implacable domestic issues. "It's not entirely clear what Hariri can do this time that he didn't do during the 10 weeks it took him to fail to form a government," he said. "I read the stalemate less as the product of foreign interference than as an inevitable consequence of 'consensus politics'. So, in a sense, international intervention is probably required, if only to take the slack out of the rope and jerk the various Lebanese actors back into line." One potentially optimistic sign of progress was a meeting between Mr Hariri and his top rival from Lebanon's Christian community, Michel Aoun. The two men bitterly fought over Mr Aoun's demand that his son-in-law, Jibran Bassil, be reappointed as minister of telecommunications. Mr Hariri's refusal to agree to this demand eventually scuppered the first effort at cabinet formation. "We had a calm discussion," Mr Aoun told reporters after the meeting. "We hope things would move fast in order to reach a solution as soon as possible. We will wait for the PM-designate's new proposals then we'll give a position regarding the deliberations to form a cabinet." Although Mr Salem believes the international community generally agrees that a stable government in Lebanon is desirable, many in the Lebanese political spectrum seem unable to accept that the country is a far smaller foreign policy priority under the new American-administration. "If they reach a stalemate, and I think they will, despite the differences between the two sides being smaller than they were in past conflicts in 2006 and 2008, people still need to recognise that Lebanon isn't a major anything to the Americans any longer," he said. "While everyone might want to see Lebanon move forward to a government, Syria seems to be using this as a chance to exact a small price for going along with it," he added. But Mr Muhanna disagrees that anyone in the international community remains interested in Lebanon enough to pay any price to Syria for a functioning Lebanese government. "America is not really interested in Lebanon much anymore," he said. "The lack of interest on the part of America - and even, to some extent, by Syria and Saudi - is what is allowing the Lebanese political leaders to operate on their own and take advantage of the ambiguities of the system to try to get as many perks as possible. Syria is happy to have Lebanon off the front page, and could not care less if its government is completely non-functional. Nobody really seems to have much of an interest in prodding the Lebanese to kiss and make up." mprothero@thenational.ae