Smiles all round over Lebanon's cabinet
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - After much delay, it was announced in Beirut on Wednesday that
Lebanon prime minister designate Saad Hariri had succeeded in creating a
cabinet of national unity, which includes two members of Hezbollah.
Although official names have not yet been released, it is expected that the
cabinet will be announced on August 1. Allies of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia,
France and the United States will all be included in the Hariri cabinet. The
breakthrough, many believe, is the direct result of improved relations between
Syria and Saudi Arabia on one front, and Syria and the US on the other.
It comes only days after US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George
Mitchell wrapped up a successful visit to Syria and an announcement that the US
was lifting certain sanctions
imposed on Damascus by the former George W Bush administration in 2004.
This week, Mitchell met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and described the
talks as "positive". On the same day, US State Department spokesman Andrew J
Laine said that the US had decided to exempt Syria from sanctions "related to
information technology and telecommunications equipment and parts and
components related to safety of civil aviation".
Talk of reducing sanctions as a prelude to improved Syrian-US relations had
been in the air for months. The US took the lead in June by announcing it was
going to send an ambassador to Damascus to fill a post that has been vacant, on
Bush's orders, since 2005.
Now comes a breakthrough in Lebanon that pleases the US. The 39-year-old Hariri
was absolutely determined to create a cabinet. This is his first attempt at the
premiership, and like any other ambitious politician he did not want to fail.
Declining an offer by President Michel Suleiman would have been catastrophic
for his political career, as would failure to get all parties onboard because
without Hezbollah, the cabinet would have been doomed to fail from day one.
For a month, Hariri failed to get Hezbollah involved because of the
controversial veto power they were seeking in government. The Hezbollah-led
opposition, which controls 57 seats in parliament, was asking for a "blocking
third" veto power, which would give it the right to obstruct sensitive
legislation, especially that related to Hezbollah’s arms, and the international
tribunal created to handle the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik
Hariri in Beirut in 2005.
Sources in Hariri's pro-Western March 14 Coalition blamed Hezbollah for the
stalemate, with some even claiming that since the opposition did not have a
majority in parliament, it was not entitled to veto power in the next cabinet.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah came out last Friday, denying that the
"blocking third dilemma" was behind the delay in creating the cabinet. But in
reality, Hezbollah was worried at the prospect of a renewed crisis with Hariri,
especially after an article appeared in a German publication two months ago
bluntly saying that Hezbollah members were involved in the assassination of
Rafik Hariri, Saad's father.
Saad Hariri and his team tried in 2006-2007 to challenge Hezbollah's arms,
claiming that they wanted to impose United Nations Security Council Resolution
1559 of 2004 which, among other things, calls for the "disbanding and
disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias".
Nasrallah even accused Hariri, right after the Hezbollah-Israeli war of 2006,
of having encouraged the US and Israel to carry on with its war on Lebanon,
with the aim of annihilating the Lebanese resistance. At one point, in May
2008, Hezbollah even clashed militarily with members of March 14 on the streets
of Beirut. This was the result of a failed attempt by prime minister Fouad
al-Siniora to dismantle the party's telecommunications network at Beirut
With these worries in mind, it was only natural that they would demand a
blocking third authority in any cabinet, taking into account that they had
walked out on the Siniora cabinet in 2007, precisely because they did not have
the necessary power to obstruct legislation that they saw as harmful to the
party's political and military future.
The blocking third problem has now been solved creatively, with maximum
face-saving for Saad Hariri. All parties now agree that Hariri's team will get
15 seats in the new cabinet, 10 will go to the opposition and the independent
President Michel Suleiman will name five. The president will get to name the
ministers of defense and interior, along with three ministers of state, who
will be a Sunni, a Shi'ite and a Christian.
By consensus, it is now agreed that the opposition will get to choose the
Shi'ite minister of the president's bloc. Meaning, the opposition will
technically have only 10 seats, but effectively 11 ministers will be under its
command. Eleven ministers would actually mean that Hezbollah's team has the
blocking third, as long as its relationship remains strong to Suleiman. By all
accounts, this is a breakthrough for Hezbollah, which now scores yet another
victory in the Lebanese political system.
Shi'ite portfolios in the Hariri cabinet will be divided accordingly between
two pro-Syrian parties: Hezbollah, which gets to name two ministers, and Amal,
which gets a total of three. Amal has already chosen the ministries of Foreign
Affairs, Health and Industry. Hezbollah is yet to name its ministers. Five
Sunni seats will go to Hariri's team, and three will go to Druze leader Walid
Jumblatt, which include the Ministry of Information.
Prince Talal Arslan, a protege of Hezbollah and a Druze heavyweight in his own
right, has been dropped from the cabinet by consensus between Hezbollah and
March 14. Ziad Baroud, a Maronite, gets to keep his job as minister of interior
- after doing a great job, by all accounts - at securing safe parliamentary
elections in June.
Elias al-Murr, a Roman Orthodox, also gets to stay as minister of defense.
Hariri will have important portfolios like Economy, Education, Culture and
Justice. Samir Gagegea, a Christian heavyweight in March 14 who is loudly
critical of Hezbollah, gets to name two ministers, an Orthodox as minister of
public works and a Maronite as minister of social affairs. His counterpart in
the March 14 Coalition, ex-president Amin Gemayel, gets two posts for the
Lebanese Phalange, and likely names include his son, member of parliament Sami
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri attributed the breakthrough in Lebanon to
Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, which he calls the S-S factor. Earlier in the year,
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem visited Riyadh and agreed to work out
a formula in Lebanon with his Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal. The results of
the parliamentary elections on June 7 played out in favor of the Syrian-Saudi
So did increased dialogue between the US and Syria, which means there was no
real reason for the Saudis to continue not talking to the Syrians. Syria got
the upper hand when Hamas was not wiped out in Gaza last December, which meant
that world powers wanting to find solutions in the Arab-Israeli conflict had to
come knocking on the doors of Damascus, due to its excellent relationship with
Obama's gradual disengagement from Iraq was an additional reason for the
Syrians and Saudis to cooperate, since they had similar agendas for the future
of Baghdad. When the Syrians and Saudis cooperate, they can bring calm to the
Sunni districts of Iraq, which plays out nicely in Obama's favor.
They only reason they had failed to see so much common ground on Iraq was due
to disagreements on Lebanon. With Hariri firmly in power, and Hezbollah getting
the veto power it has always wanted, the era of Syrian-Saudi disagreement is
seemingly now history. Observers now expect a visit by Saudi King Abdullah to
Damascus, where he will be accompanied by Saad Hariri, bringing all regional
disagreements from the Bush era to a grinding halt.