x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tension in Lebanon as factions vie for power

The governing allies are reaching out to Hizbollah to reduce tensions but will want to strip the group of its parliamentary veto.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's political factions will begin deliberations over the composition of a new cabinet and ruling coalition on June 20, a process that many Lebanese fear could lead to new political tensions and even violence. MP Saad Hariri, a key leader of the governing alliance and the most popular Sunni leader in Lebanon, appears likely to pursue the post of prime minister, which traditionally goes to a Sunni in Lebanon's complex confessional quota system.

Lebanon's current government is made up of a unity coalition of rivals, with the Hizbollah-led opposition able to veto major cabinet decisions, a dynamic that the winning March 14 alliance says should not be repeated. The unity cabinet was forced upon Lebanon by an Arab summit in Doha last May in an attempt to tamp down an outbreak of sectarian violence between the mostly Shiite opposition and a majority composed of Sunnis, Druze and some Christian parties.

But with the majority able to defend its incumbency in last Sunday's parliamentary elections, Mr Hariri and his allies appear unwilling to continue this system but have reached out to Hizbollah and its allies, including the secular Shiite group Amal and the popular Christian leader, Gen Michel Aoun, in an effort to prevent new political violence, while avoiding giving the opposition the ability to block any majority moves in parliament.

Mr Hariri and his allies have often been at odds with Hizbollah over the group's insistence of keeping its heavy weapons for use against Israel. Despite being a non-state actor, Hizbollah's military ability far exceeds Lebanon's military, which leaves many of its political opponents uncomfortable and even fearful of the group. But in an effort to assuage concerns held by the opposition about a government move to disarm the group, no matter how unlikely it might be that such an effort would succeed, Mr Hariri seems to have begun the process of reaching out to his political enemies, at least in the Shiite community.

Using recent media appearances, Mr Hariri expressed a willingness to discuss a statement protecting Hizbollah's role as a party of "armed resistance", a term the group prefers to "militia". "What is needed at this point is for the majority to offer the opposition some guarantees on specific issues, and to form a cabinet that is capable of fulfilling these guarantees," Mr Hariri said. Hizbollah officials have responded in kind, offering tentative support for Mr Hariri as prime minister but have refused to establish a position on their desire for the "blocking third" of cabinet seats needed to veto legislation.

The Hizbollah-aligned Beirut daily As Safir yesterday quoted Hizbollah officials anonymously as saying the Shiite group "does not object to Hariri becoming prime minister". The group's second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, told Reuters the group would negotiate on the make-up of a new government with an open mind, to try to prevent repeats of the occasionally violent demonstrations to have plagued Lebanon for the past five years.

"Hizbollah has decided to turn the page on the last phase and open a new page for the coming stage," Mr Qassem said. "We will also behave in a highly positive manner and co-operate with the other side. "We will wait for what the other side offers. If it decides on a programme, a vision and a method that is different from the past and that opens new horizons, they will find us by their side," he said. "But if issues remain as before at a state of tension and monopoly [of power], then we will take a stand."

On whether Hizbollah would join the government or pursue an opposition course, he added: "We don't have a pre-determined or final position." mprothero@thenational.ae