Ever since May’s parliament election, political parties in Lebanon have been jostling over the composition of the cabinet of the new national unity government. A kind of uncertainty has enveloped the political and economic outlook of the country. This does not appear to be a strange phenomenon if viewed against the backdrop of multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural social fabric of Lebanon.

Already bracketed as one of the most heavily indebted countries across the globe, with a public debt estimated at 150 percent of GDP, or $79bn, despite receiving international pledges of over $11bn in soft loans and grants during an investment summit in Paris few months back, Lebanon is fast losing hopes of early resurrection of its perilous economy and infrastructure amid continuous political stalemate. The chronic, mutual distrust among various political parties, inter- and intra-sectarian rivalries and the unending proxy wars among foreign powers is undoubtedly the most abominable dimension of Lebanese politics. The last five months have further exposed the intricacies of demographic composition of the country. The existing impasse over the distribution of ministerial portfolios is a reflection of the inability of the key players of Lebanese politics to accommodate each other and offer some concessions to each other in the larger interest of the country.

“Forming the government is taking longer than expected but we will get there,” is what the Prime Minister designate Saad al-Hariri tried to assure this week while talking to newsmen. Similarly, President Michel Aoun confidently assured the media few days back: “Yes, the government will be very soon or sooner.” Though both the top men are trying to depict confidence that they are very near to a consensus, the reality is that things are still elusive as far as the formation of the government is concerned. Lebanon’s current political system, which was designed after a 15 year civil war that ended with the Saudi-negotiated the Taif Accord in 1989, is based on the concept of creating a “balanced & proportional participation” of all the religious and sectarian forces. Under its terms, the parliament’s 128 seats are equally divided among Muslims and Christians, reinforcing the formula of 1943’s National Pact, which stipulated that the country’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. This setup is being followed fastidiously with utmost exactitude. But this time the real bone of contention is the composition of the Cabinet, where every faction wants to grab as much as possible – much more than their “judicious” share in the government.

The roots of the existing stalemate in Lebanon’s fragile, sect-based political balance can be traced to the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Hariri’s death was the key inspiration behind a grassroots movement called the Cedar Revolution – an anti-Syria theme - which held the Syrian government responsible for the country’s problems and fiercely sought the eviction of Syria’s 29-year military occupation of Lebanon. Two major protests in the country’s capital, Beirut, marked a split of the political arena into two broad camps: the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and the anti-Syrian, Western and Saudi-backed March 14 bloc. Ever since, this split has acutely polarised the country’s politics. The May parliamentary election, the first in nine years, has brought some dramatic changes in the relative parliamentary strengths of various political parties. Over 900 candidates from multiple parties competed for 128-seat national assembly where the voting was done under a new proportional list system that divided the country into 15 electoral constituencies. Hezbollah and its allies performed much better than expectation by winning 70 seats, while Prime Minister Hariri’s Future Movement was the biggest loser – the FM lost more than one-third of its parliamentary strength – but still remains the biggest Sunni-led party with 20 seats. There is no doubt that Prime Minister Hariri and President Aoun has made sincere efforts to convince the belligerent factions and political parties as well as Hezbollah to form a consensus cabinet, and there were many moments in the last five months when everything appeared to be plugging in rightly. However, on one account or other, things always fell apart at the last minute, perpetuating the political stalemate.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in the formation of unity government is the looming threat of US sanctions against Hezbollah. The sanctions were announced by the United States and Gulf states on May 16 on Hezbollah, targeting the Shia movement’s top five officials, including Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. A breakthrough in the Cabinet formation process in Lebanon still remains obscure despite recent claims by Hariri and Aoun that a power-sharing formula might be imminent. As soon as reports emerged that Hezbollah is being offered three seats in the Cabinet including the coveted Health Ministry, the Trump administration started talking about punitive measures against Lebanon.

For quite long, Hezbollah has been under severe pressure from its base to become proactive in governance and Hassan Nasrallah has also indicated in the last electoral campaign to make the issue of reform preference. There is a perception among the Shiite group’s top leadership that the Health Ministry is an excellent opportunity to offer their model of governance, unlike the other - relatively insignificant - ministries Hezbollah has held so far in the past.The Trump administration believes that Tehran is looking for ways to reinforce its power in Lebanon in retaliation for the US sanctions and that Hezbollah can effectively utilise the Health Ministry as a tool to circumvent US restrictions on its funding activities. There is a clear message, therefore, that Washington will stop differentiating between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah if the Health Ministry is allocated to it. But time is running fast and the continued the political paralysis will further aggravate the current economic predicament of Lebanon, which is already embroiled in innumerable problems like chronic power outages, insufficient civic amenities and refuges.


The writer is a freelance columnist.