Since the formation of a new government last Monday, the political game in Lebanon has hit fast-forward. By Thursday, the Lebanese president was in Damascus visiting his influential Syrian counterpart Bashir al Assad, a trip he’s only made once before. Almost immediately, it was announced that Assad would be heading to Paris the following day – just 48 hours after the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had dropped in on the French capital. Back in Lebanon, rival political heavyweights were being unusually conciliatory, leading commentators to speculate on what all this activity and bonhomie meant.
It has taken Lebanon’s politicians almost five months to agree on the formation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet – and this has involved caving in to many of the demands made by the Syrian and Iranian backed opposition. But on Monday with Netanyahu visiting President Obama (the Israeli president has been busy getting his message out on the diplomatic stage), and Israel also threatening to respond to the presence of a ship discovered off Cyprus allegedly carrying weapons to Hezbollah, Lebanon really had no time to lose in forming a team that could respond, at least verbally, to its neighbour.
Following a division of ministerial numbers devised by the Doha Accords in May 2008, the majority led by Saad Hariri, gets 15 ministers, the opposition 10, and the president also appoints five “neutral” ministers. While the young interior minister Ziad Baroud, a favourite with many ordinary Lebanese, got his post back (see Monocle issue 29), other hopeful candidates have had to make do with the likes of the Youth & Sports ministry. Michel Aoun, “Le General”, the boisterous opposition leader, secured the crucial telecommunication portfolio for his Party, though not for his son-in-law, for whom he had been so brazenly campaigning. He managed to snap up the Ministry of Electricity for his relative instead. Hezbollah, only got two ministries, but no matter what happens during cabinet meetings, they are the ones with the real muscle.
Ordinary Lebanese, used to power vacuums, are cynical about any potential for real change especially from a government with no decisive majority. History shows it just takes one group to walk out (usually urged on by a regional ally), to make the entire system crumble.
“If the process of forming a government in Lebanon is ever going to become any less fraught with uncertainty, inefficiency, and hilarity, then someone is going to have to re-write the rules,” wrote Elias Muhanna, the popular author of the “Qifa Nabki” blog. Hariri, whose prime minister father was assassinated in 2005 at the behest, according to many, of the Syrian regime, knows this better than anybody else. Yet intriguingly he has just received a telegram from Damascus, congratulating him on his new appointment.
But whatever the machination at play, Lebanese people are just grateful to start the weekend with a government in place. It’s a new experience.