x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Way paved for new cabinet in Lebanon

The thawing of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia is expected to help Lebanon's prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, form a unity government, more than three months after general elections.

BEIRUT // The thawing of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia are expected to help Lebanon's prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, form a unity government, more than three months after general elections. Mr Hariri has launched two rounds of negotiations with parties over allocation of ministerial portfolios since his Saudi-backed March 14 coalition won June's elections. He resigned the post of prime minister earlier this month after failing to secure an agreement with the opposition, led by the Syria-backed militant group Hizbollah. However, an unexpected meeting in Riyadh last week between Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was expected to smooth the way for forming a new cabinet, considered essential to governing Lebanon's many fractious political and sectarian parties.

"If the Saudis responded to the Syrian initiative and King Abdullah decided to visit Syria, we will have a new government in Lebanon," said Tannous Moawad, a retired army general and the head of Middle East Studies, a Lebanese research agency. Parliament was expected to finish deliberations on the composition of a cabinet today, with Mr Hariri to meet a delegation from the party of his top rival, Michel Aoun, on Thursday to discuss the final details. Ziad Abs, from Mr Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, said the meeting would be more practical. "We already agreed on the form of the new government which will remain faithful to the 15-10-5 formula. No more wasting time, this time around we will eventually have a government that will satisfy all parties," he said.

The 15-10-5 formula is based on the outcome of the Doha agreement in May 2008 which ended an 18-month political crisis. The agreement stipulated that 15 seats would be allocated to the majority, 10 to the minority and five to the president as a neutral party. Syria and Saudi Arabia were in a bitter dispute over the murder of Mr Hariri's father, Rafiq, in a 2005 car bombing that also killed 22 other people. A former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri had very close ties to the royal family in Saudi Arabia and they immediately blamed Syria for his murder, which badly strained relations until a minor thaw this year. Mr Hariri is expected to make major concessions based on the Saudis' recommendations. Abdul Aziz Khoja, the Saudi information minister was to visit Beirut today to talk with Mr Hariri and update various Lebanese political leaders on the outcome of the Syrian-Saudi summit. Mr Abs said that any new government would include Mr Aoun's son-in-law, Jubran Bassil, the current minister of telecommunications. Mr Hariri and Mr Aoun had clashed bitterly over the inclusion of Mr Bassil. Mr Hariri had argued that giving ministerial portfolios to those who lost their seat in the election went against the public's wishes. But Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president, told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper that this was not a rule set in stone. "It's a tradition that's been broken several times." An official with the parliamentary majority said Mr Hariri would be more flexible this time around. "We should expect a new government early next month," the official said on condition of anonymity. With the division over Hizbollah's unwillingness to disarm, it would be unrealistic for the majority to rule without the minority's consent. Mr Moawad, however, was sceptical that the result would be of benefit to the country. "If there was a Syrian-Saudi agreement, the new government will comply with the minority's demands, and the new government might be worse than having no functioning government as it will be a constant heated debate over all essential issues," said Mr Moawad. "Those who have the weapons will win and those who have the legitimacy will lose. That's the only constant equation that applies in Lebanon's politics," he said. mzeidan@thenational.ae