What power is left for Lebanon’s Prime Minister?

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

It is quite normal for an ambitious politician to exploit internal political imbalance to his/her advantage; especially, in a fragile state that lacks proper institutions and traditions of accountability.

Furthermore, it is not strange in the Arab world that a large sector of the population has become religiously extremist and overtaken by desire of defeating and suppressing those it regards as enemies; nor is it rare in the ‘Third World’ that one sect or group monopolizes patriotism, civilization, national ‘resistance’, even being close to God Almighty, to the extent of giving itself exclusive rights and freedoms that it claims are taboos to others.

Still, what happened in Lebanon recently has been truly noteworthy. Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, decided on his own, as if he was not a cabinet member, to declare war on the UNCHR (a UN agency) after he accused it of “inciting Syrian refugees based in Lebanon to refuse to return home, through scaring them of what is in store for them in Syria if they did!”. This, as far as I can make out, is unprecedented!

Yes, the same UN which we have seen how its envoy to Syria ‘undersold’ the Syrian people since his unfortunate appointment to the post in July 2014, is now being accused by Bassil of inciting the refugees not to return home while Assad regime remains in power. The UN, in fact, has been since July 2014 almost a ‘false witness’ to the conspiracy of systematic uprooting and displacement of 13 million Syrians carried out after a series of massacres committed by the military forces of the regime and its allies. Yet the Lebanese minister thinks that the UNHCR needs to ‘scare’ the refugees from a regime they have experienced its ‘interaction’ with its people since 2011!

On the other hand, the minister knows that the UN knows that he and the party he leads – i.e., the ‘Free Patriotic Movement’ (The Aounists) – are ‘allies’ of Hezbollah whose active participation in the Syrian war was a main cause of the refugees’ plight. Indeed, the ongoing ‘alliance’ between Hezbollah and Bassil’s Party, forced on the Lebanese the ‘election of General Michel Aoun as president of Lebanon, and that Aoun – Bassil’s father-in-law – was among the first leaders to declare their support of Assad, in accordance with the ‘alliance’.

Moreover, both the UN and the Lebanese people are quite aware of the overt and unabated contacts between the Lebanese coalition that includes Aoun and Bassil – of course, is led by Hezbollah – and the Assad regime, among which the communications between Bassil and the regime’s counterpart Walid Al-Moallem. Thus, if one may give the UN the benefit of the doubt with regard to the fate of the refugees, this does not apply to a minister who leads a party that is a member of an openly pro – Assad coalition, and is actively backing it in the conflict!

Assad cronies and henchmen

As if this was not enough, the overall scene became even more ‘surrealistic’ after the naturalization ‘scandal’, whereby a large number of Assad cronies, henchmen, financial backers and front men were granted the Lebanese citizenship; while some in the Lebanese government are sparing no effort in expelling poor helpless refugees and displaced under the pretext of ‘preventing resettlement’ of Syrians! The Assad cronies and henchmen still have the palaces, money and influence in Syria and hence are not threatened by a regime that they serve, and enjoy its protection, which is a far cry from the tent-dwelling displaced who have lost everything but fear and hunger.

Unlike global businessmen and wealthy people who are usually granted citizenship in several countries all over the world in return for previous proof of investment, there are no guarantees that Assad’s cronies and henchmen are going to invest in Lebanon. Indeed, among many of these are suspects or people accused internationally of crimes of corruption, including bribary and dubious deals. As such it was necessary to wonder about the reasons for a naturalization bill prepared secretly and only came to light officially after a media and political onslaught. Even then, the ‘clarification’ included in official reaction was self-defeating as it stated that the suspects’ names would be referred to the Directorate of Internal Security which would carry out the required ‘investigations’, although the conventional wisdom would have been to investigate before signing the naturalization bill.

What is known so far is that the naturalization bill carried the signatures of Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri and his political ally Interior Minister Nuhad Al-Mashnouq, in addition to President Michel Aoun. Therefore, Hariri and Mashnouq share the moral and political responsibility for such a bill. Both Hariri and Mashnouq, although now politically close to Aoun, still claim to be against the Syrian regime. On the other hand, sources with Hariri’s Future Movement’ accuse certain elements with Aoun’s and Bassil’s FPM to have been the driving force behind the naturalization bill, and that the Prime Minister and his Interior Minister are not connected to it, but they only signed it because they did not want to appear to deny the President one of his constitutional rights, among which is granting nationality or citizenship.

This may well be true; however, the problem with such excuse is that while Hariri is so keen to uphold the President’s constitutional rights and privileges, the Aounists are doing their best to belittle and cut down the Prime Minister’s rights and privileges in what seems to be a ‘silent but serious accelerated coup’.

Many Lebanese feel today that the post of Prime Minister is back to what it was before ‘The Taif Accords’; i.e., a powerless valueless post, as the President insists on attending all ministerial meetings, and nibble either directly or indirectly – through the FPM ministers and MPS – at the Prime Minister status and role. In this context, the Foreign Minister flagrant disregard and disrespect to the cabinet’s collective responsibility and solidarity is not actually new. He has been doing this for some time now buoyed by the President’s support, Hezbollah’s de facto security hegemony, and Hariri’s declaration that his solid political strategy is now based on ‘stability’ and ‘moderation’!

The strategy of ‘stability’ and ‘moderation’ has been the ‘weird’ justification used by Hariri for ‘following’ Aoun, voting for him in the Presidential elections, and agreeing on his choice (and Hezbollah’s choice) of an electoral law based on proportional representation.

In reality, Hariri has accepted that his only role in government is now to seek foreign aid while the ‘Aounists’ – and Hezbollah, in the background – take the important strategic, political and military decisions in Lebanon.

This, regardless of Hariri’s good intentions, is nothing short of yielding to the clear-cut conspiracy to undermine ‘The Taif Accords’, destroy national consensus, and get rid of Lebanon’s last chance of true co-existence.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.

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