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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Saad Hariri hits a brick wall with Lebanon's cabinet formation in deadlock 

Analysts say that, as is often in the small country, regional developments are needed before decisions will be made 

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks to the press outside the Special Tribunal for Lebanon after hearing closings arguments against four Hezbollah suspects accused of 2005 assassination of his father. AFP
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks to the press outside the Special Tribunal for Lebanon after hearing closings arguments against four Hezbollah suspects accused of 2005 assassination of his father. AFP

After four months of horse-trading and very public rifts between party leaders, Lebanon is still no closer to forming a new government.

The country held its first parliamentary elections for nine years in May after being delayed due to instability caused by the war in Syria and long-running issues on agreeing a new vote law. Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has been trying to form a cabinet since then, but disagreements over-representation and regional pressures have caused a deadlock.

The impasse has put at risk billions of dollars in grants and loans pledged in April by the international community at a time when Lebanon’s economy is under severe strain.

At the root of the delays are disagreements over the ministries assigned to each party — a perennial feature of Lebanese politics whereby positions are negotiated through backroom talks until a consensus is reached that allocates ‘fair representation’ to each party.

Lebanon’s political system is based on a confessional arrangement that allocates power among its 18 different sects. But exactly how cabinet posts are distributed among those sects is often a source of tension.

Mr Hariri’s Future Movement, for example, is facing pressure to cede ministries to Sunni leaders outside of his political bloc after suffering losses in May’s elections. Conversely, the Lebanese Forces is demanding a greater number of positions from President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) after exceeding expectations. Talks are also said to be stalled over a demand from the FPM for 11 seats in the expected 30-member cabinet, which would give it a veto over all government policy.

A simmering row between the FPM and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) has taken centre stage in recent days, over alleged attempts by the FPM to hand cabinet seats to Talal Arslan, a Druze rival of PSP leader Walid Jumblatt.

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On Sunday, Mr Jumblatt attacked FPM chief Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Aoun, without directly naming him.

“The son-in-law is seeking to consolidate his hegemony and we are the only ones opposing him,” he tweeted. “The rest are a group of monuments and corpses whose only concern is to split shares. Do not play with fire.”

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France in September. REUTERS

But these local squabbles are outweighed by regional concerns, according to some analysts.

“All of these local issues are put in front to hide the real problem, which is the return of the Syrian regime’s influence on Lebanon,” said Joseph Bahout, non-resident scholar in Carnegie's Middle East Program.

“The regime has clearly sent a message to Hariri saying that any formation of government will have to accept that relations will get back to normal. But Hariri has been resisting this,” he added.

The issue of Syrian influence is a major dividing line in Lebanese politics. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s allies in Lebanon, among them Hezbollah and President Aoun’s party, wish to see ties fully restored. Until 2005, Syrian forces occupied Lebanon and major political decisions were diktats issued by Damascus.

Mr Hariri has rejected normalising ties until a political solution is reached in Syria. Separately, an international tribunal set up to investigate the assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, will deliver a verdict in the coming months. Five Hezbollah members were indicted for the killing, which is thought to have been linked to the elder Hariri’s opposition to Syrian rule in Lebanon.

Speaking last month, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speculated that Mr Hariri might be stalling forming a cabinet until that verdict is delivered, and more international pressure is brought to bear on the group.

“Some [in Mr Hariri’s camp] say that the main reason behind the delay in cabinet formation is that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is set to issue its verdict in September and the new situation in the country will be the basis of the formation,” he said last month.

“The STL does not mean anything to Hezbollah, and any statement issued by it is of no value to them,” he added. However, the tribunal isn’t known for speed and says it is hopeful that they can reach a decision by or in 2019.

epa07020575 A general view of the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea in Beirut, Lebanon, 14 September 2018. EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
A general view of the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea in Beirut. EPA

With so much shifting in the region, Mr Bahout said that both parties are keen to delay until a clearer picture emerges.

“People around Hariri and the Lebanese Forces are betting that economic pressure against Iran will lead to a more conciliatory approach,” said Mr Bahout. “Also you have the Syrian regime and Hezbollah happy to wait until after the battle for Idlib in the hope that balance of power will definitely tilt towards them, and the last barrage of resilience of Hariri and his allies crumbles.”

Lebanon is no stranger to lengthy negotiations over cabinet formation — it took 10 months to end a similar stalemate in 2014. But these talks have been given an added urgency by the dire state of the country’s finances.

Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 153 per cent. It has also been dealing with the fallout from the Syrian civil war: economic growth has plummeted from an average of 8-10 per cent before the conflict began to around 2 per cent today.

epa07026639 Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut, before their journey to their homes in Syria at the Sport City in Beirut, Lebanon, 17 September 2018. Around 200 Syrian refugees began their trip home as part of a coordinated operation between authorities in Beirut and Damascus. EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut to journey home to Syria. EPA

International donors pledged more than $11billion in loans and grants at a conference in April to help improve Lebanon's ailing infrastructure, but the money was conditional on structural and political reforms, which cannot be passed without a government.

“It is only external pressures that will force a solution, in this case, is pressure on the economy,” said Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

But Lebanon’s structural weaknesses mean it is doomed to go through the same thing every time, according to Mr Yassin.

“The issue is deeper as it reflects the deep divisions in sectarian societies and the inability of consociational systems such as Lebanon to offer smooth mechanisms for power sharing,” he said.