Lebanon is being held hostage to internal political conflicts to an unprecedented extent given the failure of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to form a new government that satisfies the various interested parties. The longer he takes to do so, the more obvious the internal conflict becomes amongst Lebanon’s political groups over the distribution of shares.
The president’s camp, consisting of Hezbollah and other political forces, is seeking a government ensuring them a guaranteed portion that allows them to control all government decisions and paralyse its work whenever it wants. Prime Minister Hariri’s camp, on the other hand, is seeking a national consensus government that is not dominated by any one party. He is relying specifically on the Sunni MPs from the Future Party and the support of the Christian MPs from the Lebanese Forces Party, as well as implicit support from other traditional political parties which oppose the new era approach of a dominating authority and the approaches of the Free Patriotic Movement’s strongman, Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law, in interfering in the government structure. The position is so bad that it has reached a point of accusations being made that some parties are hindering effective governance.
This is not the first time that Lebanon has experienced such a crisis; it was under Syrian control for a long time, which dictated the formation of the governments in Beirut. This is also not the first time that Hariri has found himself challenged in forming his government; it took him five months to form an administration after the 2009 election. Former Prime Minister Tammam Salam achieved a world record in 2014, when the formation of his government took 315 days. Moreover, before current President Michel Aoun was elected, the position was vacant for two years.
Vacancies in senior positions and caretaker governments are worrying indicators of the internal crises suffered by Lebanon, which are manifest today in the current stalemate. The aspect of the government crisis which is arguably of most concern is the dangerous phase that the region is going through. This includes growing fears about the deterioration of the security situation on the Lebanon-Israel border due to Israeli opposition to Iran’s military presence in Syria. There is also increased tension between Washington and Tehran following the re-imposition of international sanctions on Iran. This has been reflected on the domestic situation in Lebanon; the country’s economy is also in a critical state.
There are numerous analyses of the causes of the impasse. Those loyal to Hezbollah attribute it to the unacceptable Saudi-US intervention in imposing a government structure that is unacceptable to them. Hariri’s circles blame it on Iranian intervention, while other Lebanese analysts see it as an attempt by the presidency to impose new rules on the formation of the government at the expense of the Prime Minister’s powers in this regard. There are those who link the fate of the government with the race for the presidency four years from now, based on Aoun’s remarks regarding Bassil being ahead of the other candidates, and the great margin of freedom granted to him. Mentioning this possibility has raised concerns within the Maronite community over the establishment of a dynastic presidency.
There are also disagreements over the actual sizes of political parties and forces, as if the recent election enhanced uncertainty and deepened conflicts rather than resolved them. There are those who fear that the inflexibility and stubbornness of rivalling political parties regarding the distribution of shares and quotas will lead to the prolonging of the crisis and impasse indefinitely, even though the biggest loser will be the new government.
Given this increasingly complex situation, what role does Hezbollah, which has the largest military force in Lebanon, play in this matter? Despite the fact that the party leaders have insisted on their neutrality and that they support the choices of their ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, and are maintaining a good relationship with the Prime Minister designate, there are some who link the party’s position on the issue of the government’s formation with developments in Syria. According to a political analyst writing in Haaretz, the complications over the government in Lebanon are related to Hezbollah’s concerns regarding the future of its presence in Syria after the end of the civil war and the development in Russia’s position regarding Iran’s military presence there. He also believes that it is linked to the extent to which Russia is subject to Israeli influence, and whether Syria will remain a major way station for the delivery of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah if and when Bashar Al-Assad regains full control of his country. In this uncertain stage, Hezbollah prefers the establishment of a government completely loyal to itself in order to protect its internal status and regional interests.
None of these interpretations and explanations can justify the rest of Lebanon’s social, economic, political and military security being held hostage by rival political camps that do not see the greater danger posed to the state and its people if they continue to hinder the formation of the next government of the Republic indefinitely.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 12 August 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.