Lebanon’s new cabinet: A modest compromise

While the new cabinet doesn’t promise a big agenda, it gives Lebanon a chance to take a step forward

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam - Al Arabiya News
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Late German leader Otto von Bismarck said politics is “the art of possible,” a phrase that holds true for Lebanon’s newly formed government founded on internal and regional compromises.

While the new cabinet is a team of bitter rivals and doesn’t promise a big agenda, it gives Lebanon a chance to ease tension and build stability away from Syria’s turmoil.

After ten months and nine days of political stalemate and consultations, designated Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced yesterday the formation of the new cabinet.

The announcement effectively ended the longest power vacuum seen in Lebanon since 1969 and brought together a broad-based national unity government with the participation of both the March 14 and the March 8 blocs.

Forming the government represents “a very important and long overdue benchmark for Lebanon” says Paul Salem, the Vice President of the Middle East Institute. Salem, known for his expertise in Lebanese affairs, says he saw a series of internal and regional compromises leading to the breakthrough.

Internally, Salem tells Al Arabiya News that “there are no winners and no losers, all sides compromised to get to this government.”

Hezbollah compromised in agreeing to the 8-8-8 formula for seat distribution while its political opponents in March 14 “backed down on Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria as a prerequisite for joining the government.”

Hezbollah also agreed to include ardent foes it had vetoed in the past, such as Ashraf Rifi, appointed as minister of Justice, and Botrous Harb, the new minister for communications.

Regionally as well, Salem sees traces of cooperation that helped deliver the government in Beirut.

“A Lebanese government bringing March 14 and March 8 together means there was a slight compromise from both Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he explained.

Salem says that Riyadh accepted Hezbollah in the government while Iran, under the new presidency of Hassan Rowhani, chose a power-sharing formula to ease Sunni-Shia sectarian tension and contain the backlash on Hezbollah over its role in Syria.

Three years ago, Iran was under a different leadership and a stronger al-Assad regime existed in Syria. These factors led Hezbollah to opt out of a power-sharing government in Beirut and form a one-sided cabinet under Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

The Syrian conflict, however, appears to have changed Hezbollah’s calculus at a time when the war’s spillover and the resulting sectarian divide are becoming costly for both Lebanon and the powerful Shia party.

Salem contends that the idea of a national unity government only came after a realization that the one-sided models such as that from the Mikati government preceding this cabinet were ill-equipped to contain the Syria spillover.

“Waiting for the Syrian crisis to end is no longer an option,” he says, citing recognition among different Lebanese parties, including Hezbollah, that Syria is a protracted conflict and that halfhearted measures are not enough to protect Lebanon.

Since Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria in May of 2013, there have been several car bombings in areas where the party has a strong presence. The volatility has forced some of Hezbollah’s leaders to consider leaving south Beirut and to cancel a rally planned today.

The Tammam Salam government, which brings with it a lineup of political rivals, each with a partisan agenda, is not designed for ambitious political projects.

Salem describes the coalition as “the best that Lebanon can do for now” with an austere mission set “to maintain some peace and absorb the tension.”

As Hezbollah continues to fight in Syria, it hopes in Lebanon “a national unity government will help in containing the sectarian tension, and in reaching out to the Lebanese Sunnis.”

The Sunni community is better represented in this government with members such as Nouhad Machnouk, Ashraf Rifi and Prime Minister Tammam Salam who enjoy wide support in the community.

This “helps in places like Tripoli, particularly in filling the political deficit felt with the previous Mikati government,” says Salem.

Having an operational government will help Lebanon to have a more robust international outreach ahead of a key meeting in Paris next month and is essential in processing overdue legislations on gas and energy.

The new cabinet, “will not be tasked to do miracles” concludes Salem, but rather to help build a more stable environment at a time of grave international and regional concern over Lebanon being drawn deeper into the Syrian fire.

You can follow Joyce on twitter @Joyce_Karam

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