Hezbollah back in the Lebanon fray
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Observers of the Middle East scene who were banking on a gradual
reduction of Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon were in for a big surprise on
Monday. After five months of political bickering, Hezbollah got its way in the
formation of a cabinet, headed by the parliamentary majority leader, Saad
Those eager to write Hezbollah off from the political scene had their hopes
raised in June, when the party and its allies failed to secure a majority in
parliamentary elections. The Hezbollah-led opposition effectively maintained
the status quo, winning 57 of the 128 seats in parliament.
Members of the victorious March 14 Coalition rejoiced, claiming that Hezbollah
would no longer be able to dictate its policies. The complex world of Lebanese
politics, however, has proven that
regardless of parliamentary numbers, the country cannot be ruled without the
consent of the Shi'ites, who are overwhelmingly in favor of Hezbollah and its
sister party, Amal.
Although Hezbollah got to name only two ministers in the 30-man cabinet of
Hariri, the opposition, which is headed by Hezbollah, received a total of 10
seats. The pro-West March Coalition received 15 seats, while the independent
President Michel Suleiman got to name five ministers: interior, defense and
three ministers of state - a Sunni, a Shi'ite and a Christian.
One of the reasons the cabinet formation has been on hold for five months is
the "blocking third" dilemma. Hezbollah had demanded the right to veto any
legislation in the cabinet, through a blocking third formula, fearing that
March 14 would use its majority to debate the issue of disarming Hezbollah.
March 14 argued that this was impossible, since the opposition did not command
a majority in parliament and therefore was not entitled to veto power.
Hezbollah insisted, and simply refused to endorse any cabinet formation until
this critical issue was settled.
Hariri tried to create a cabinet unilaterally this summer and failed, realizing
that no government would be considered constitutional unless it contained all
of Lebanon's religious sects. A cabinet with no Shi'ites would have aroused
massive demonstrations on the street, similar to those that crippled the
economic and political life of Lebanon for nearly two years in 2006-2008.
To settle the dispute, all parties hammered out a creative formula. Hezbollah
would get to name one minister from the five seats allocated to Suleiman,
namely Minister of State Adnan al-Sayyed Hussein (a Shi'ite). Although legally
Hezbollah would command no more than 10 seats in government, effectively it now
has 10+1, giving the party a total of 11, which is a blocking third. This
minister - nicknamed Minister King - would have the power to make or break any
legislation and he is close to Hezbollah, although not officially a member of
The second stumbling block, which eventually played nicely in Hezbollah's
favor, has been the Ministry of Telecommunications. In May 2008, the March 14
cabinet of ex-prime minister Fouad al-Siniora tried to dismantle Hezbollah's
communication network on Runway 17 of Beirut International Airport. The single
event led to street battles in Beirut, bringing back reminders of the civil
Whoever controls the Ministry of Telecommunications gets to protect - or combat
- Hezbollah's communications apparatus. The party's Christian ally, Michel
Aoun, had been demanding that the post go to his son-in-law, Gibran Bassil.
March 14 had originally curtly refused, claiming that Bassil had lost the
parliamentary elections of June and was not entitled to a cabinet post.
Aoun and Hezbollah refused to budge, insisting that the post went to the
Hezbollah-led opposition. Suleiman came to their defense, saying that there was
no law - only political norm - dictating that defeated parliamentary candidates
could not become ministers. This issue was also resolved to Hezbollah's favor,
granting the controversial post to Carbel Nahhas, a member of Aoun's Free
Patriotic Movement; he is close to Hezbollah. March 14 not only bent on
relinquishing the post, but also agreed to name Bassil as minister of energy
In total, Maronite Christians now have six seats in the Hariri cabinet, three
of them for Aoun, and the Shi'ites have six posts as well, two of them for
Hezbollah (agriculture and youth affairs). Hezbollah's ally, Amal, got to name
Ali al-Shami, a newcomer, as minister of foreign affairs. The finance ministry
went to Raya Haffar, a young newcomer from March 14, who is one of the two
women in the government.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has three of his allies onboard - Akram Shuhayeb as
minister of the displaced, Wael Abu Faour, minister of state, and Ghazi
al-Aridi, minister of public works. Among the former ministers who stayed on in
the new cabinet are Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Elias al-Murr
and Interior Minister Ziad Baroud.
In addition to being yet another victory for Hezbollah, the formation of the
cabinet promises to bring relative calm and security to the tiny Mediterranean
country. It signals that Syrian-Saudi relations are going well, given that the
two countries command strong influence over Hezbollah and March 14
In October, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah visited Damascus, sending positive
signals that had a strong effect on the political football in Beirut. His
relationship with Syria had been strained over Lebanon since 2005, but today
the Saudi monarch seemed more interested in finding common ground with the
Syrians on Iraq - concentrating on what united him with the Syrians over Iraq
than what divided them over Lebanon.
United States President Barack Obama has helped this positive mood since he
came to power in January. Under Obama, Lebanon has dropped from being a
priority for the US to becoming "important", given that the US president is
clearly more interested in solutions for the critical areas of Afghanistan,
Iraq, Pakistan and Iran.
The Syrians and Saudis realized that, if they cooperated, they could achieve
tangible results related to security in Iraq, which is what Obama is now
looking for in the Arab world. Before doing that, ahead of the parliamentary
elections in Iraq in January, they had to make sure that other troubled regions
like Lebanon were pacified.
If forcing March 14 to grant the Telecommunications Ministry to the opposition,
or giving them veto power would solve the crisis in Beirut, then this was the
price the Saudis were seemingly willing to pay for peace and quiet in Lebanon.
Too much was at stake for Saudi Arabia - politically, financially and morally -
to allow Lebanon to slip into political chaos. Saad Hariri, 39, is a
long-standing and loyal friend for the Saudis. Given that this is his first
tenure as premier, Saudi Arabia wanted him to succeed - at any cost.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.