x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Lebanon government near, says Suleiman

Foreign observers hope Lebanon's wait for a workable government will soon be over, and some warn that a delay could be dangerous.

BEIRUT // After a coalition of Sunnis, Druze and Christians commonly known as "March 14" won Lebanon's parliamentary elections in an upset victory over the Hizbollah-led opposition, it was expected by most observers that forming a national unity cabinet would be complicated. What was unexpected was that Lebanon would remain rudderless more than four months after the prime minister-designate Saad Hariri began cabinet deliberations.

Normally any major crisis in Lebanon can find its roots in a foreign conflict, with this tiny, politically fractured country often finding support for its dozens of factions among players in the Middle East's constant state of regional tensions - but despite the best efforts of many political figures, even by the admission of Lebanon's president, the problems this time lay at home. In an interview this week, the president Michel Suleiman added his hopeful prediction that Lebanon might actually form a government in the coming days to the mix, even as he blamed political factions for allowing minute differences in opinion freeze the entire country into a four month stalemate.

"I can say that the dispute is no longer political, but administrative," he told the daily al Akhbar after explaining he expects a cabinet in the coming days. "But that doesn't mean that our system is not mired with flaws and gaps that need to be corrected in a timely manner." Since the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005 after nearly 30 years of occupation, Lebanon has lurched from crisis to crisis as Saudi Arabia, the United States and France supported Mr Hariri's "March 14" coalition in a political battle with the Shiite-led opposition supported by Syria and Iran in a proxy battle that mimicked the bigger and bloodier conflicts underway in Iraq and Palestine. But last month's rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia in a critical summit between both sides in Damascus should have removed one of the main obstacles to a Lebanese compromise. And with a new American administration that has vocally said both on and off the record that it has little interest in precisely how a cabinet is formed, it was expected that Mr Hariri would find common ground with his Shiite rivals in Hizbollah for a way forward.

That path to government remains elusive for both sides as talks continue to flounder over parochial issues, including grandiose demands by Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun for control of at least five key ministries despite his obvious election setbacks. Mr Hariri and Mr Aoun have spent most of the past few months engaged in ambiguously successful meetings in order to resolve control over important portfolios such as telecommunications, justice and finance.

One major political figure from Mr Suleiman's bloc, which is seen as generally neutral in this battle, argued this week that a cabinet agreement was imminent and set the stage for a compromise on control of the telecommunications ministry, where Mr Aoun wants to return his son-in-law over Mr Hariri's objections. "We have reached the final stage, meaning that we are only a few days ahead of a government formation," the MP-elect Michel Murr said.

But in response to a reporter's question about the battle for the ministries, Mr Murr responded with a flip, "Where is the disaster if [Aoun] kept the [telecoms] ministry?" There are indications that the delay is starting to concern even the Americans, who have paid very little political attention to Lebanon since the end of the Bush administration. In Washington, Jeffrey Feltman, acting US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testified to Congress that he hopes that Lebanon's political factions will agree on a cabinet "in the coming day".

"Expectations are currently high that a cabinet could be announced within the coming days. We certainly hope this is the case," said Mr Feltman. "The Lebanese people have waited too long for their government to return to the work of ensuring security, economic development, and political dialogue for all Lebanese citizens," said Mr Feltman. Of dire concern to the international community are a string of incidents in southern Lebanon, including exploding houses of Hizbollah members, exploding spy gear apparently placed by the Israelis and the occasional mysterious but so far harmless rocket attacks on Israel by unknown perpetrators. Foreign diplomats have repeatedly stressed concern that the power vacuum in Lebanon could destabilise a country that is regularly on the brink of disaster even under normal circumstances.

The United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, on Wednesday voiced "deep concern" over the delay in cabinet formation, while the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said last week he was "worried" by the cabinet deadlock and feared it could undermine security in the country, according to local press reports. mprothero@thenational.ae