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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Lebanon’s PM Hariri must push on as speaker dashes hope of cabinet agreement

The latest proposal only lasted three days but is now back at square one, writes Sunniva Rose in Beirut 

Lebanon's Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil takes photos of the parliamentary re-elected speaker Nabih Berri stood next to Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the parliament in Beirut. Reuters
Lebanon's Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil takes photos of the parliamentary re-elected speaker Nabih Berri stood next to Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the parliament in Beirut. Reuters

Just days after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stuck an upbeat tone about forming a new cabinet in the next 10 days, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri dashed hopes by saying negotiations were back at square one.

Five months after the country’s first election in nine years, Mr Hariri has been working to hammer out a power-sharing deal acceptable to the major Lebanese political factions.

Last Thursday’s televised address, after another meeting with President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace, wasn’t the first time he’s been optimistic. Underlying his promises of a speedy formation have been the increasingly urgent warnings about an impending economic crisis in a bid to push Lebanese parties to set aside their differences and accept compromise.

But a simmering and vicious spat between the two main Christian political parties, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) – founded by Mr Aoun – and Lebanese Forces over the number and position of ministers in the new government has again sunk Mr Hariri’s latest offer and left him few option.

“We’re back to zero”, the speaker of Parliament told Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar on Saturday. “There was a glimmer of hope, but … I’m pessimistic”.

In Lebanon, power is divided between the country’s 18 denominations represented in parliament and government by a plethora of parties largely defined by sect. The need to represent all major religions in government is a recurring source of tension that has delayed previous cabinets by month and in some cases years.

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The aging president Aoun’s – now 83 years old – has increased the competition between Christian leaders who want to succeed him, argues Michael Young, editor the Carnegie Middle East program’s Diwan blog. “That’s why nobody is making concessions”. Lebanon’s President is always Maronite Christian.

However, FPM MP Alain Aoun downplayed the recent tensions. “Mr Hariri made real progress during his last meeting with President Aoun [on Wednesday]. I believe he will be working on a new version of the government over the next 10 days. We are in the final rounds of negotiations”.

It’s not the first time Mr Hariri has had trouble forming a cabinet. When he was first designated as Prime Minister in June 2009 and tasked with forming a government, he resigned when faced with a deadlock after three months later when talks fell apart.

He was then immediately re-appointed prime minister-designate and succeeded in forming a government in November.

This time, Lebanese politicians say, he has no other choice other than to keep trying to strike a deal.

“Even within our Parliamentary bloc, we don’t think it’s wise to pressure Hariri to resign”, MP Yassine Jaber, who is affiliated with the speaker’s Shiite Amal Movement, told The National. Mr Berri’s a close ally of the powerful Hezbollah militia-cum-political party.

“It would be catastrophic. There is no credible replacement. He is the one who has worked out the Cedar agreements and who represents most of the Sunni MPs”, he said in reference to a major donor summit in April.

The international community pledged over $11 billion in loans and grants during the CEDRE conference in Paris for projects detailed by the Lebanese government under a plan driven forward by Mr Hariri. The project aims to supporting Lebanon’s fragile economy and see investment and reform in a country with the world’s third highest debt-to-GDP ratio.

Talk of a devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which has been pegged at a fixed rate to the dollar since 1997, has become an openly-discussed possibility. “An economic crash could destabilise a country already swamped with refugees and plagued by sectarian divides”, wrote The Economist in late August.

In addition to the country’s economic woes, regional concerns could also push Lebanese politicians to reach a consensus.

The full re-imposition of US sanctions against Hezbollah’s main backer, Iran, on November 4, is the Prime Minister’s most important impending challenge said Bassem Chab, a former MP with Mr Hariri’s Future Movement.

“The last thing the Iranians want is disorder in Lebanon when that happens. Hezbollah has a majority in Parliament and the President is on their side. It’s a good opportunity that they don’t want to waste”, he told The National. Hezbollah controls around 15 seats in the 128 seat Parliament but through alliances and deals can rely on the vote of other MPs.

Mr Chab added that they expect US President Donald Trump to sign the “Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2018” before the anniversary of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing on October 23. This, he says, would ramp up existing restrictions on the group to include a clause regarding Hezbollah MPs, associates and affiliates.

“This kind of pressure is far greater than internal bickering”.