The Spooks of Beirut

Lebanese parliamentary elections were held on June 7, and nearly five months later, there is still no government in place. And the reasons for it are all too predictable.

Despite threats in the run-up to the vote made by Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton should the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition win, and the illegal election-eve campaigning (read: fear mongering) of Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, it was by all measures a free, fair ballot.

The winner was the Western-backed March 14 coalition, led by Future Movement head Saad Hariri. Due to the sectarian distribution of seats – ironically the great paralyzing factor in Lebanese politics yet one that has nonetheless managed to keep the country afloat—the winning alliance was able to clearly win the majority of seats in the National Assembly despite clearly losing the popular vote.

Hariri was nominated by his bloc to the post of prime minister and easily confirmed by the rest of parliament shortly thereafter.

The first question to face Hariri in forming the bloated 30-member cabinet was immediately apparent: would he continue to allow the opposition to wield veto-power as they did under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (a right granted to them as part of the May 2008 Doha Accords)?

Remarkably, a solution was rather quickly reached: 15 seats would be allocated to Hariri’s bloc, 10 to the opposition, and five would be appointed by President Michel Suleiman. By mutual agreement, one of Suleiman’s appointees would be approved by Hezbollah, thus giving them the one-third plus one number of ministers needed for a veto. Problem solved.

Then came the unexpected announcement of Lebanon’s consummate political opportunist, Druze and Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Jumblatt. Despite roundly bashing Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah during the campaign and in years prior, Jumblatt did an about-face in August by saying he would break ranks with Hariri and pull out of the March 14 coalition.

“Our alliance with March 14 forces was driven by necessity and must not continue,” Jumblatt said as he hurriedly sought to meet with Nasrallah. Never missing an opportunity to play kingmaker and stay politically relevant, Jumblatt has now indicated that although he will not be part of the government, he will keep his PSP within March 14 and not join the opposition.

It was nevertheless a setback for Hariri in forming his cabinet, and in September said he would step down as prime minister-designate. Within weeks, he was reappointed by President Suleiman and told to try again.

Many analysts concluded that nothing would solve the deadlock until a much anticipated Saudi-Syrian rapprochement took place. This occurred when King Abdullah paid an official visit to President Assad in Damascus in early October. Not wanting to make it too obvious that the dysfunctional Lebanese body politic was dependent on this reconciliation, it was understandable that it would take more than the declared “just a few days” before a cabinet was finally put together.

But weeks later, it has yet to happen.

Proving that all politics is indeed local, the present day impasse stems in part from the demand of Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement within the March 8 coalition and the most popular Christian politician in the country, that his group be granted five ministries (which is not unreasonable considering the number of seats he has in parliament) and that one, the Telecommunications Ministry, be given to his son-in-law.

Control of telecommunications is contentious since it was the Siniora government that wanted to strip Hezbollah of their own telecommunications network and eventually led to the outbreak of violence on Beirut’s streets last year. As for General Aoun, he built his reputation on his “War of Liberation” against the Syrians in the late 1980s. Not long after his return from exile in 2005, he joined forces with the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance.

It should now be obvious why Lebanon has had no government since the June elections.

As each of above scenarios illustrate, to blame are entrenched, feudal lord politicians and their patrons, who are incapable of moving past personal agendas and egos to address the country’s pressing needs.

They include Saad Hariri (who despite his youth, has failed to usher in any fresh thinking), Jumblatt, Aoun, and parliament speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri. The latter’s 17 long years at the post will now be extended another four. At least Sayyid Nasrallah’s Hezbollah movement has invested in essential social welfare services and programs to aid those historically neglected by the state, not to mention having to continuously worry about the threat of Israeli aggression—and convince others in the government the reality of it.

Such politicians and their pettiness, belonging to both of the two main political camps, represent nothing more than intransigence; habitually shifting from one fleeting set of conveniences, opportunities, or alliances, to another.

This Halloween these spooks of Beirut will haunt the city, doling out tricks, but not much else.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.



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Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.

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