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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Lebanese government talks hit snag over Sunni representation

Hezbollah is insisting one of its Sunni allies be made a minister

Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah gather near a giant poster of their leader Hassan Nasrallah. AFP
Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah gather near a giant poster of their leader Hassan Nasrallah. AFP

Just as Saad Hariri looked set to form Lebanon’s next government, a last-minute demand from Hezbollah has stalled the tortuous process once again.

After nearly six months of delays, largely over a battle between the Christian Lebanese Forces and Free Patriotic Movement, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri had found a compromise. At the beginning of the week, officials sounded upbeat that a final agreement would be announced within days.

But within hours of LF leader Samir Geagea announcing that he accepted a compromise in the share of seats given to each of the Christian parties, essentially conceding ground to the FPM which was founded by President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah posed a new conundrum for Mr Hariri.

The powerful militia-cum-political force is insisting that one of its Sunni allies be made a minister to reflect the result of an election in which Mr Hariri lost more than a third of his seats, some of them to Sunni allies of Hezbollah.

While he lost MPs, Mr Hariri had done better in May’s election than many pollsters expected given the shift in vote law to proportional representation by district rather than the old winner takes all system.

"Our view is that their demand is just and we stand by them," senior Hezbollah official Hussein Khalil said in televised comments after meeting with the group's Sunni allies.

"I believe the problem of the representation of the independent Sunni MPs is not bigger than the problems that were solved," he said.

The demand puts Mr Hariri in a tough position. As head of the Future Movement, the largest majority Sunni party, his rhetoric and position places him as the political leader of his sect. But with more non-Future Movement Sunni MPs now in parliament and Mr Hariri facing off strong competition from rival Sunni politicians in key districts – including the country’s second city of Tripoli – Mr Hariri’s mantel as the sectarian leader is slipping. Hezbollah’s demand would simply reinforce this in a very public way.

Mr Hariri has ruled out giving up one of his cabinet seats. 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. But that too is contentious and relies on the goodwill of the president.

While the FPM has been allied with Hezbollah since 2006, Mr Hariri has built a close relationship with the party’s current leader, MP Gebran Bassil – Mr Aoun’s son in law.

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Government posts in Lebanon are filled according to a strict sectarian system. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. Posts in the cabinet – this time expected to be 30 ministers - must be split equally between Christians and Muslims.

Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist movement by the United States, is tipped to take control of the health ministry, the most significant cabinet post it has held, and to increase its number of ministers to three from two in the outgoing cabinet. This alone could pose significant challenges to Lebanon’s ties to the west.

Faisal Karami, one the Hezbollah-allied Sunni MPs, criticised Mr Hariri and his Future Movement party.

"He wants to monopolise the entire Sunni sect for himself," Mr Karami told LBC television. "Today the Future Movement no longer represents the absolute, overwhelming majority in the Sunni street."

Rashed Fayed, a Future Movement official, said the demand by Hezbollah and its allies was "sudden" and "contrived" after months when the subject had not surfaced in the cabinet discussions. "Saad Al Hariri will not let it pass," he told Reuters.

A second source in the Hariri camp described the row as quite serious and said resolving it "will take time".

The Hariri-owned Al Mustaqbal daily on Wednesday questioned the motives behind Hezbollah's sudden demands and suggested that it was only intended as a jab at the prime minister-designate.

But there is also another option for Mr Hariri – resign.

He threatened to step down as prime minister-designate earlier this month in a bid to force the LF and FPM to compromise.

He has made clear that’s still an option. Responding to Hezbollah, Mr Hariri said if they were insistent they could "find someone else" to form a cabinet.

After a glimmer of hope, it seems Lebanon once again faces an uncertain future.

The sluggish economy, battered by the impact of hosting over a million Syrian refugees and a sharp drop in tourism and investment in recent years, threatens to enter a tailspin. While the Central Bank keeps assuring markets that the Lebanese Lira is stable, many experts don’t expect that can last indefinitely under the current situation.

In April, the international community gathered in Paris for the CEDRE conference to support Lebanon’s economy. The $11 billion ($40.4 billion) in loans and grants for an economic plan spearheaded by Mr Hariri is now dependent on forming a government to approve projects and pass reforms.

But with Mr Hariri’s lack of options and Hezbollah not having a reputation for conceding their demands, Lebanon could be on the brink of a protracted standoff. This could have a serious impact on the economy and ordinary people but also on Mr Aoun’s presidency.