11 July 2008

* Lebanon Cabinet In Real Words!

Hezbollah’s arms will remain the main problem after the formation of the cabinet.

After a week of will-they-or-won’t-they signals from both camps on the formation of a new cabinet, new obstacles have surfaced: The issue of the Christian representation in the government – defused Thursday with Democratic Gathering leader Walid Jumblatt giving up his nomination of bloc member Nehme Tohmeh, and Mustaqbal Movement leader Saad Hariri withdrawing the nomination of Ghattas Khoury – Speaker Berri’s bizarre persistence on insisting Ali Qanso, former head of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), be given a portfolio; and the ongoing problems of who “gets” the ministries of Justice and Public Works. The level of horse-trading and bickering means that if and when a government is eventually formed, it will, in all probability, be shot through with compromise. In such a scenario, would Lebanon really be out of the woods?

A new government will not be the quick fix many expect. One of the first challenges facing the new cabinet will be to reach an agreement on the content of its policy statement. Speaking to NOW Lebanon, Nassir al-Asaad, a columnist with Al-Mustaqbal daily, who has identified the ministerial statements as the next battle among the majority and opposition camps, predicts that Hezbollah will once again do all in its power to maintain its military edge. “Hezbollah has not, and will not, deal positively with Doha’s political content; therefore it does not consider it the basis of any political governance in Lebanon,” he stressed, adding that Hezbollah’s main concern is preserving its arms at any expense.

Hezbollah knows what it is doing. After the Doha conference, it said that it was ready for any national dialogue on one condition: That it starts after the drafting of the ministerial statement, knowing that, with any delicate issues already resolved in the ministerial statement, the national dialogue’s scope would be limited.
The party has already stated that its demand to keep its arms is legitimate, as the struggle is far from over. It does not consider the proposed solution of putting the Shebaa Farms under United Nations control a genuine option as long as Israel continues to pose a threat to the Lebanese, and it has even, in some circles, called the initiative treasonable. And while the party leadership has expressed willingness to discuss a defense strategy, according to Asaad, this is a concession that flies in the face of both the Doha Agreement and the president’s inaugural speech, which stress that the state has sole authority over the formulation of any defense strategy.
Earlier this month, when Nasrallah held a press conference in which he revealed details of the prisoner swap, he also stressed Hezbollah’s understanding of a defense strategy: “We are always ready to discuss the defense strategy. We are not afraid of discussion. Anyone afraid of discussion is weak and has done something wrong. We are unafraid. We have a comprehensive defense strategy, and are ready for discussion at all times.”

Asaad is not convinced. “Hezbollah wants the new [ministerial] statement to be similar to the last one, which stressed that the Resistance was a true expression of the national right of the Lebanese to liberate their land and face Israeli aggressions and threats, even though it also acknowledged the UN resolutions calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament, with the caveat that it should be preceded by national unity,” said Asaad.

However, more than three years have passed since the last cabinet was formed, during which Lebanon has experienced enormous upheaval: the 2006 war, the passing of UNSCR 1701 and the May fighting, which many saw as an attempted coup d’état by Hezbollah. The image of the Resistance has morphed from that of a party filled with stout freedom fighters taking on an occupying Zionist entity, to an autocratic militaristic entity that can impose its will on the nation within a matter of hours.

It is Hezbollah’s talent for the latter that could threaten the freedom and fairness of next year’s general elections. “We cannot go to the 2009 parliamentary elections as long as weapons are still [present on] the streets. Otherwise, there is another option: Hezbollah goes for a military coup, after which it guarantees winning the elections,” said Asaad. “The rest of the issues – such as the military and security appointments, privatization, and even Lebanese-Syrian relations – become side issues.”

Then there is the vote of confidence the parliament usually gives to any new cabinet before it becomes a functional entity. Any falling-out over the policy statement could be a dagger in the heart of the new administration. Charles Ghostine, a lawyer and former senior figure in the National Liberal Party, told NOW Lebanon that, although the cabinet gets the vote of confidence based on the ministerial statement, he does not believe there will be a conflict, because “Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was very positive during his last speech, and I think the majority would not stress the arms issue; otherwise, the government would never be formed in the first place.”

Others are not so upbeat. Speaking to NOW Lebanon, former MP Fares Soueid said that after the May incidents, the issue of Hezbollah’s arms cannot be avoided anymore. “The Taif, the Doha Accord and the UN resolutions, namely 1701, all blocked the use of Hezbollah’s arms; therefore, the ministerial statement should target the relationship between the state and armed groups,” he said.

According to Fares, the ministerial statement will not ignore the issue, but it can find verbal solutions to deal with it. “The real battle is the political equation between the state and the arms: Keeping the arms would hinder the building of a strong republic, while disarming Hezbollah would threaten civil peace. This is the real obstacle, and we should not forget that this equation is related to regional balances and calculations,” Fares concluded.

Regional signs
Analysts believe that the reason for the cabinet delay may be because it is calibrated to a regional timeframe for change. There has certainly been increased diplomatic activity: A third round of the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, a truce between Hamas and Israel, dialogue between the US and Iran, and Syria’s recent call for the “normalization” of diplomatic relations with Lebanon, all of which the opposition feels might give it extra leverage.

But according to Asaad, these regional signs, although positive in many ways, are not decisive. “There are signs and countersigns, and no one can predict whether the region will go to war or to settlement. Bashar al-Assad is going to Paris for the Mediterranean Union Summit and will be meeting Sleiman, but let’s not forget that we also have the issue of Ali Qanso. The truce in Gaza is fragile, and Iran and the US still haven’t resolved their issues.”

Asaad also considers the new European openness to the Syrian regime questionable. “It is still not clear what they are expecting from Assad and what he wants from them.”
In that conundrum, may lie Lebanon’s destiny.


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Lebanon Time-Line

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