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In Lebanon: New Government, Old Politics

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 12, 2009

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After months of political bickering, Lebanon finally has a new government that includes Hezbollah and U.S.-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, but, says Mohamad Bazzi, a former Middle East correspondent for Newsday and now an assistant professor of journalism at New York University, "not much has changed. It's the status quo for the most part." The problem, says Bazzi, is a government structure that could well hobble decision making. It will be difficult to get important laws enacted. And the new government has no control over the Hezbollah-armed forces, which in 2006 fought a month-long war against Israel. Bazzi says the United States is relieved there is finally a government, but "there's this paradox where you have Hezbollah having an important voice in this government and the Obama administration wants to do its best to avoid them" since Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist organization in the United States.

Five months ago, elections for a new parliament were held in Lebanon. The winner was the coalition led by Saad Hariri, the son of the former prime minister who had been assassinated, but it has taken until now to bring about a government, which was just announced. Why did it take so long and what is the significance of this new government?

It took five months because Saad Hariri was trying to form a government that pleases all sides in the Lebanese conflict, and it was very difficult to do. Hariri was named the prime minister-designate after the June 7 election because his March 14 coalition won the election and he received the mandate to form the new government. In Lebanon, there's a long tradition of governments and cabinets ruling by consensus, meaning that each of the major sectarian groups in Lebanon has to have a major role in the government. So very quickly, Hariri sought to create a national unity government that would bring in the opposition, which includes Hezbollah and its allies, the Shiite Amal party, and the Free Patriotic Movement of the Maronite Christian politician Michel Aoun.

Hariri is a Sunni?

Hariri is the preeminent Sunni politician in Lebanon today. His coalition includes several Sunni parties and several Christian parties, and until very recently it also included the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and his party.

Did Hariri's coalition win by a large majority?

The March 14 movement won by several seats, but the opposition actually won the popular vote. Parliamentary seats in Lebanon are divided along sectarian lines, and it's a very complicated system for apportioning parliamentary seats. The real contest during the parliamentary election was between the Christian factions--the March 14 Christian faction vs. Aoun's political group, which is allied with Hezbollah. Aoun did not do as well as expected, and he wasn't able to capture enough parliamentary seats to swing the majority in parliament toward the Hezbollah-led grouping. As Hariri set out to create this national unity government that would include Hezbollah and Aoun and their allies, the opposition was demanding veto power. The opposition wanted a cabinet that includes thirty ministers, in which it would have had eleven ministers and that would have allowed them what is called the "veto third," or they like to call it the "blocking third," where they could block any major government decision they did not like. Important issues in Lebanon have to be decided in the Council of Ministers (cabinet) by a two-thirds majority. But Hariri insisted that he would not give the opposition this "blocking third."

[The new government in Lebanon] grants significant power to the opposition, and the opposition could bring down the government if some of the ministers appointed by President Suleiman side with the opposition. That could throw Lebanon into a new round of political paralysis.

What was the compromise?

A formula was reached over the summer for having a thirty-member cabinet divided in this way: fifteen members for March 14, ten members for the opposition, and five ministers to be appointed by the president, former General Michel Suleiman, who would be the arbitrators between the two sides. Under this formula, the parliamentary majority would not have enough votes to ram through decisions. In exchange, the opposition would not have the veto power to bring down the government if it wanted. So, we have this situation where the president's appointees are the potential referees between the two sides.

Why did it take so long after these formulas were worked out for them to get a new government?

Several things happened. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, announced over the summer that he was moving away from the March 14 grouping, basically taking his political party out of the March 14 coalition and moving toward the middle ground, meaning being allied with the president. This was an unsettling development for Hariri, because it endangered his parliamentary majority. But after some meetings between Hariri and Jumblatt and other leaders, Jumblatt announced that he would continue backing Hariri's parliamentary majority, and he signed onto to the formula of fifteen, ten, [and] five ministers.

But then a substantial stumbling block emerged when Michel Aoun insisted on keeping several portfolios, especially the telecommunications ministry. [This is] an important ministry because it contributes a tremendous amount to the Lebanese budget. Lebanon has some of the highest cell phone rates in the world, so that ministry brings a lot of money to the government. More importantly for Aoun and Hezbollah, that ministry also has substantial capability to monitor phone calls, both landline and cell phone calls, and Hezbollah wants to keep that capability with its allies as much as possible. Hezbollah is worried about Israel tapping into Lebanese phone networks. So they see this telecommunications ministry as an important security portfolio.

This wrangling over this one ministry went on for months. Aoun was also insisting that his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who was the minister of telecommunications in the previous government, continue to hold that portfolio. Hariri was resistant to that for several months because Gebran Bassil had lost his bid for a parliamentary seat. They argued that anyone who had lost their election bid for a parliamentary seat should be kept out of the new government. Eventually, the two sides reached a compromise, where Aoun's party continued to control the telecommunications ministry and Gebran Bassil moved over to be minister of energy and water. The key posts of defense and interior ministers are appointed by the president, and are supposed to be above politics.

Some have said that the final compromise was worked out after Saudi King Abdullah visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. What do you make of that?

Well the Syrians and Saudis exert significant influence on both major factions in Lebanon. The Syrians support Hezbollah and its allies, and the Saudis support Hariri and March 14 [coalition]. In early October, King Abdullah went to Damascus on a conciliatory state visit to Assad. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance over this. He was grandly received by Assad, and this was an important moment for Syria, which has been trying to force itself back into the Arab political order after being isolated for years by the Bush administration and its Arab allies. This visit allowed the Syrians to come back into the Arab fold and to improve their alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other Arab powers. One of the concrete benefits of this summit between Abdullah and Assad was an agreement to push the two sides in Lebanon to agree on a government. Syrian-Saudi reconciliation definitely played a role in this bargain in Lebanon over a new government.

As prime minister, Hariri is going to have no control over Hezbollah's military agenda or any of its weapons.

Talk about the new government. Look at it, first of all, from the Obama administration's point of view. Is it happy with this arrangement?

Publicly, the Obama administration has been very supportive of Hariri, and it breathes a sigh of relief that there's finally a government in Lebanon after five months of this political maneuvering and wrangling. There are some downsides for the Obama administration, however. It's a government that grants significant power to the opposition, and the opposition could bring down the government if some of the ministers appointed by President Suleiman side with the opposition. That could throw Lebanon into a new round of political paralysis. This is also a government that includes two ministers from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon. It's designated a terrorist organization by the United States, and the Obama administration wants nothing to do with Hezbollah. So there's this paradox where you have Hezbollah having an important voice in this government and the Obama administration wants to do its best to avoid them. So on the face of it, the administration is relieved that there's finally a government in Lebanon, but there are significant potential problems with the arrangement that was worked out.

Now talk about Hezbollah a bit. In 2006, it had a month-long war with Israel in which Hezbollah came out looking pretty strong. Just recently, the Israelis seized a ship that originated in Iran, which the Israelis claim was bringing weapons and missiles to Syria that would be transported to Lebanon. Is Hezbollah gearing up for another war?

Hezbollah has been making preparations in southern Lebanon ever since the end of the 2006 war to rebuild its stockpile of missiles and other arms. During this period of political paralysis, Hezbollah used the opportunity to continue this arms build-up. Over the summer, there [were] some quite heated exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel where both sides were threatening the other. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened at a rally in August that Hezbollah now had the capability to reach any city in Israel with its missiles. Then Israel also threatened that it would hold Lebanon and the Lebanese government accountable for any actions of Hezbollah. That calmed down in recent months, until last week, when the Israelis captured this ship off the coast of Cyprus that was allegedly smuggling weapons from Iran to Hezbollah through Syria. There have been a few incidents when weapons stockpiles have exploded in southern Lebanon. These are stockpiles in houses that were kept by Hezbollah, and those were violations of the United Nations Security Council resolution that ended the war in 2006. Under that resolution, Hezbollah is not supposed to be keeping weapons south of the Litani River. The resolution also says that Israel should not be flying over Lebanese territories, which it does very frequently, so Israel also violates the resolution in various ways.

Even if Hariri is head of the government, does he have any control over Hezbollah and its militias?

No. And one of the early stumbling blocks to forming the government was a debate over the ministerial statement that would be issued along with the new government and whether that statement would make any reference to Hezbollah's weapons. The Christian political parties that are part of the March 14 grouping tried to pressure Hariri to include a statement that all weapons in Lebanon should be under the control of the Lebanese state and the Lebanese army, but Hezbollah would not allow that. The statement does not make any reference to Hezbollah's weapons, and it in fact makes a reference to the right of the Lebanese to resist Israeli aggression. As prime minister, Hariri is going to have no control over Hezbollah's military agenda or any of its weapons.

So in conclusion, now there's a new government but nothing much has really changed, right?

No, not much has changed. It's the status quo for the most part.

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