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Rival Lebanese factions close to an agreement on cabinet

Lebanon's political divisions appeared to take a step closer to healing yesterday as the incoming majority alliance that won June's parliamentary elections forged a compromise with the Hizbollah-led opposition on the make-up of the new cabinet.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's political divisions appeared to take a step closer to healing yesterday as the incoming majority alliance that won June's parliamentary elections forged a compromise with the Hizbollah-led opposition on the make-up of the new cabinet. "We do not yet have a cabinet as ministers and portfolios still need to be determined, but we have come to an understanding on the framework of the cabinet and it is a creative solution to the question of an opposition veto on cabinet decisions," said Ali Hamdan, a top adviser to the parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a leader in the opposition movement.

After the June election victory by a coalition of Sunnis, Druze and some Christian parties against the predominately Shiite opposition and their Christian allies, incoming Prime Minister Saad Hariri has faced extreme reluctance by the opposition to participate in a cabinet that does not offer them the ability to veto major decisions. Hizbollah and its allies demanded a so-called "blocking third plus one" of seats on the cabinet to prevent the government from making unilateral decisions on contentious issues such as the right of Hizbollah to remain an armed force independent of government control.

But according to political sources in Beirut and reports in the local media, the parties have agreed to a format that would give the majority 15 seats, the opposition a 10-seat portion and allow President Michel Suleiman, who is widely seen as an independent, five seats to prevent a plurality by the majority. Mr Hariri and his party refused to comment, continuing a near media silence on the deliberations, but the Reuters news service reported that Hizbollah had accepted the compromise.

"We have felt progress ... which could lay the ground for more progress in the next few days," Mohammad Raad, the leader of Hizbollah's parliamentary bloc, told reporters after talks with Mr Suleiman. It is widely reported that one of the seats offered to the president would have to be a Shiite political figure approved by Hizbollah but who would vote according to the president's policies, a compromise that would leave the veto power in the hands of Mr Suleiman with some promise that Hizbollah's stance on key issues would be respected.

The deal, if it survives the next round of political horse trading that will assign specific ministers from specific parties to their new posts, would represent a near continuation of a Qatari-brokered deal that ended a two-year political crisis and power struggle between Mr Hariri and Hizbollah and its allies over a national unity government. But the coming days will be critical as a key Christian opposition figure, former army chief of staff Michel Aoun has repeatedly criticised both his foes and allies in their treatment of the talks. Local media reports claim he is insisting on control of the interior ministry, a demand not likely to be accepted by Mr Hariri's Christian allies in several parties that once literally fought the Aoun-led Lebanese Army at the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.

Although the constitution does not require Mr Hariri to consult with the opposition at all in the formation of the cabinet, Lebanon's deeply fractured sectarian political system essentially requires a certain level of co-operation for any government to function effectively. A similar un-mandated tradition allocates the presidency to a Christian figure, the prime minister's chair to a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker's post to a Shiite.

The possibility of an agreement would further stabilise Lebanon, which has seen a quiet and lucrative tourist season with over two million visitors expected this summer after four years of political strife and a war with Israel after the 2005 murder of Mr Hariri's father, a former prime minister. @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae Main editorial, page a19