x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hizbollah and allies take half of Lebanon's new cabinet

After five months of negotiations, new cabinet 'reflects the balance of power on the ground in favour of the pro-Syrian coalition,' and 'won't alter the dynamics of the Lebanese political situation,' says analyst.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's new government was formed yesterday, bringing an end to nearly five months of protracted deliberations over the country's next cabinet line-up.

Nejib Miqati was formally appointed as prime minister as his 30-member cabinet was named, revealing a government dominated by Hizbollah allies, analysts said.

Lebanon was thrown into political turmoil when ministers aligned to the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition resigned in January, causing the collapse of prime minister Saad Hariri's government.

The mass resignation was triggered by differences, notably over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which Hizbollah and its allies have dismissed as a politicised investigation.

Yesterday, Mr Miqati called for work to start immediately, based on principles including "defending Lebanon's sovereignty and its independence and liberating land that remains under the occupation of the Israeli enemy".

The cabinet gives Hizbollah and its allies 18 of the 30 seats, up from 10 in the previous government. No women were named as ministers.

Mr Miqati, an MP from Tripoli and a billionaire businessman, was named prime minister designate on January 25. In February, Mr Hariri's March 14 coalition announced that it would boycott the next government.

The cabinet formation process stalled as disagreements emerged over the distribution of sensitive portfolios and the shares allotted to various factions. One of the major stumbling blocks was the key post of interior minister.

Marwan Charbel was confirmed yesterday as the new head of the interior ministry, while Mohammed Safadi, the former minister of economy, was named as finance minister. Fayez Ghosn was appointed as defence minister.

The process of forming the cabinet was further complicated by regional unrest, specifically the uprising in Syria, which still has political clout in Lebanon.

Oussama Safa, an independent, Beirut-based political analyst, described the new cabinet as overwhelmingly pro-Syrian, with the exception of a few "middle-grounders".

"It's not the kind of government that will deliver much and is a desperate move by Syria and pro-Syrian groups to make believe things are OK," he said. "To me it seems like a government from the 1990s … a relic from the past."

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said the new cabinet was "one-sided, as expected".

"This reflects the balance of power on the ground in favour of the pro-Syrian coalition," he said. "The new cabinet won't alter the dynamics of the Lebanese political situation."

The new cabinet faces immediate challenges, including pressing social and economic problems and the issue of the STL, the investigation into the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 others.

By late yesterday, the government suffered its first setback with the resignation of Talal Arslan, the leader of the Lebanese Democratic Party and member of the Druze sect. Mr Arslan reportedly left over his appointment as a minister of state without a portfolio, rather than a more high-profile post.

The cabinet now must be approved by a majority of the Lebanese parliament within 30 days.