09/19/2009, 00.00
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Hariri’s conundrum amid domestic tensions and foreign meddling

by Fady Noun
The prime minister designate tries a second time to give Lebanon a government. However, his task seems bound to fail. Ties between Lebanese parties and regional powers rather than domestic matters like Shia representation are the main obstacles.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Saad Hariri’s second attempt to form a government does not seem destined to succeed, at least on the short run. In order to understand Lebanon’s governmental crisis we have to try to understand the whole Middle East.

In a speech before the annual Ambassadors’ Conference on 26 August, French President Nicolas Sarkozy challenged the idea that the Middle East conflict was regional in nature. The implications of the “Middle East conflict,” he said, “are global.”

“Israel,” he noted, “does not stand alone” for “we won’t ever accept her security being jeopardised.” However, “it’s a mistake to think that you [Israel] can pursue the settlement process and hope for peace.” At the same time, for the French president everything suggests that Iran is trying to become a nuclear military power so that it is hard to believe its leaders when they say the opposite.

Add to this Saudi-Syrian rivalry, the thinly disguised Sunni-Shia confrontation, the growth of terrorism, especially in Palestine and Iraq, and we get some of the parameters of the Lebanese crisis . . . some but not all.

What is clear is that Lebanon today is hostage to an international crisis and that Lebanese have to solve it from within.

Backed by 73 parliamentary votes out of 128, Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri was tasked for a second time to form a government. However, he is bound by the need to build a domestic consensus based on a regional, if not international, balance of power that is reflected in the country’s various political parties.

Hariri’s great challenge thus is to find ways to patch up domestic divisions that are always on the verge of turning into civil disorder. On a strictly political and institutional level, Hariri’s main challenge is to select Shia representatives for his government.

Under ordinary circumstances, this would not even be a challenge, since communal affiliation would not normally determine political alignments. However, if it is so it is because of numbers. Only two parties, Hizbollah and Amal, represent Lebanon’s Shia community. A third movement appears to be in its developmental phase but it still lacks credibility and is rejected by a majority of the community as unrepresentative, if for no other reason than it did not make any inroads in the recent election.

Since he must form a national unity government, the prime minister designate is thus forced to take into account the political orientations of political parties that are strategically complementary but totally opposed to his party’s views, and this for political and communal reasons since their sponsors are respectively in Damascus and Tehran.

Even if Hariri could put aside this need for a domestic consensus, which he has tried to do out of sheer bluster, President Michel Suleiman, whose approval is indispensable for the formation of the government, could not accept it since he was elected in a regional deal (Doha 2008) that masqueraded as a consensus-based accord. Reflecting a certain balance of power, this deal changed the political game and further pushed Lebanon away from the rules of democracy.

For some observers the search for a domestic consensus, which could lead to a national unity government, is not likely to bring any immediate results. Lebanon will thus continue to be without a properly functioning government whilst other events unfold in the region, starting with talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany) over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

For its part, the Iranian government wants Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon added to the list of issues to be discussed at these talks, thus making Lebanon another card up its sleeve. Its government can thus wait. For some observers, this means the stalemate can continue for weeks, perhaps months.

At least if there were some bright developments on the Palestinian question, but here too, clouds are gathering. In his tour of the region, US President Obama’s envoy George Mitchell has been unable to wrestle anything substantial out of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in terms of a settlement freeze.

The US president, who is scheduled to lay out his peace plan for the region when he speaks at the United Nations on 23 September, has thus nothing to offer to the Arabs in exchange for making any sacrifices in the name of peace. For some in fact Obama will have to work for after Netanyahu . . . . But to quote Sarkozy again, “Time [. . .] is not on our side. It is our judge, and we’re already living on borrowed time.”

Are there local factors that alone can prevent the formation of a government? It would appear so. One case in point is General Michel Aoun’s desire to see his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, become a cabinet minister after the latter’s defeat in the recent parliamentary elections.

Such a case is potentially explosive because a government department like the Telecommunications Ministry, which Michel Aoun would like to see assigned to Bassil, is not merely a public service provider. For Hizbollah and the opposition, it is strategically important for security reasons.

In Lebanon, the telephone is more than a means of communication—it is a tool for spying that the opposition wants to control. The same is true for the Interior Ministry, which the opposition also wants to see assigned to one of its members.

This is an example of the labyrinthine politics Hariri is faced with and which, short of a miracle, he will be hard pressed to manage with any ease. Under such circumstances, it would really be a miracle if he was actually able to form a government with ministers motivated by the higher interest of the nation, drawn from local political parties, including some from the opposition, and capable of resisting the pressures that would inevitably fall on them and likely force them to turn down the responsibilities offered to them.

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