Damascus: There is no progress on the cabinet formation in Lebanon, although it has been nearly two months since Saad Hariri was tasked with forming a new government. Hariri has met twice with President Michel Aoun, whose son-in-law, Gibran Basil, leads the largest bloc in Parliament, hoping to dilute differences before Christmas. They agreed on nothing, however. Yet, Hariri still insists on his right to form a government, saying that constitutionally he is bond by no deadline to do that.
There is still major disagreement over the size of the upcoming cabinet, with Hariri wanting a small government of 18 ministers while Aoun and his Hezbollah allies insisting on an expanded one of 20-24. If a small cabinet is formed, the Druze minority will get only one minister, to be picked by Hariri’s ally Walid Jumblatt. If an expanded one is formed, however, they will get two ministers, one for Jumblatt and one for Aoun’s ally, Emir Talal Arslan.
Aoun is also demanding that he names all Christian seats, since Hariri gave the right to Hezbollah and Amal to appoint all Shiite ministers. Aoun is staking a claim to 11 seats for his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the four seats that were previously held by the Lebanese Forces (LF), the second largest Christian party in Lebanon.
The LF are technically no longer members of parliament, after their MPs resigned collectively last summer, after the Beirut port explosion. Hariri and Aoun are both claiming that deprived of their parliamentary standing, the LF cannot impose any names on the new government.
That means that in a cabinet of 20-24 ministers, Aoun will control 15 out of 30 seats, which he says is reasonable due to the fact that his party also controls the largest bloc in Parliament (a total of 29 seats).
Aoun’s claim to Interior Ministry
Their share includes powerful posts like the ministries of foreign affairs, defence, and energy, and they are now eying the ministry of interior as well, which has traditionally been held by Hariri’s Future Movement. Their insistence on the portfolio of interior is ostensibly in-line with the French Initiative of President Emmanuel Macron, which says that no single party or sect should get exclusive rights to any portfolio.
Hariri has said that he is willing to rotate the religion of the minister of interior, giving it to a Christian member of the Future Movement but not to the Free Patriotic Movement. And if he were to relinquish his claim to the post, he is asking for the portfolio of foreign affairs instead, which Basil and Aoun refuse to yield.
Hariri’s current pick for the Ministry of Interior is retired army general Nicolas Habr, while Aoun is pushing for one of his proteges, Jean Salloum. Salloum is a retired general who was charged with arresting Samir Gagegea back in 1994, making him a sworn enemy of the Lebanese Forces.
Quarrel over energy and public works
The other disagreement is over the portfolio of energy, which both Hariri and Aoun want for their parties. This is an important post that will play a crucial role, when/if Lebanon begins drilling for natural resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The portfolio of energy has been with the Aounists since 2009.
The second stumbling bloc is the Ministry of Public Works, which Hezbollah is claiming for itself. “This portfolio is expected to be on everybody’s radar” said political analyst Fadi Akoum. Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “This is where the fresh money will go when the reconstruction starts, channelled into infrastructure projects,” explaining why Hezbollah is determined to grab it.
Hariri is reluctant to yield, however, fearing that if the post is held by Hezbollah, no foreign investment will ever reach Lebanon to rebuild what was destroyed by the Beirut port explosion.
Already, money from a 2018 international donors conference has been withheld, awaiting political and administrative reforms that would curb Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. So is a $9-10 billion loan from the IMF. Lebanon started talks on this earlier this summer but negotiations are currently on hold because incumbent premier Hassan Diab is in a caretaker capacity, unable to sign off such a big amount.
The only agreement so far is that the Amal Movement will get the portfolio of finance, which Hariri has promised to Speaker Nabih Berri. Two candidates are being considered for the job: Wael Zein, a London-based financial expert, or Yusuf Khalil, the current director of financial operations at the Central Bank.
Fears about Trump
No development is expected on that front, however, before Joe Biden enters the White House on January 20, 2021. Hariri wants to wait and see how the new administration will approach Iran, and thus Hezbollah, not wanting to name any minister who might be subjected to US sanctions by the outgoing Trump Administration.
He has promised cabinet posts to two parties that are possibly on Trump’s sanctions list, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the Christian Marada Movement, who are each expecting one seat in the next government, in reward for naming Hariri as premier last month.
Word of mouth in Lebanon says that before leaving office next month, Trump plans to add five new Lebanese figures to the American blacklist, expected on January 6, 2021. Hariri will not be forming his cabinet until those five names are revealed, not wanting to name a minister who ends up on the sanctions list.
The Prime Minister-designate is very worried about who the Aounists bring on board the government, after the Trump Administration slapped sanctions on Gibran Basil last November.
Hariri recently met with the US ambassador to Lebanon, who stressed that Hezbollah must not be present in the cabinet, neither directly nor via proxy. This is a far more hardline approach than that of the French, who accepted Hezbollah’s representation and met with its officials during President Macron’s August-September visits to Lebanon.
The visit by Macron to Beirut, which had been scheduled for December 22-23, was cancelled after the French President was diagnosed with COVID-19. It was expected to get the Aounists to soften their position vis-à-vis Hariri.
“In two years, we will be having presidential and parliamentary elections” said Akoum, adding: “A bone-breaking battle is currently underway, to determine who controls the country between now and then. Much of that depends on who controls the next government.”