Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

LEBANON: After Accord, the Inevitable Bickering Begins

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Jun 23 2008 (IPS) - A month has gone by since the May 21 Doha agreement between warring Lebanese factions, which ended a week-long civil conflict that erupted on May 7, and led to the death of 67 people. Painstakingly brokered in Qatar’s capital with the support of the Arab community, the peace deal also stipulated the election of consensus president Michel Suleiman. But ever since, Lebanese politicians have been bickering relentlessly over ministries in the future government.

Lebanon’s political scene is drawn essentially around two main factions: the parliamentary majority and the opposition. Western and Arab backed, the majority is currently comprised of the Sunni Future Movement, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and Christian Lebanese Forces and Phalangist party. On the other end of the spectrum is the Iranian and Syrian backed Shia Hezbollah-Amal tandem, which is allied with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), headed by General Michel Aoun.

Under the deal struck in Doha, the opposition gets 11 seats and the majority 16 in the new government, while the remaining three ministers are to be appointed by the new president. However, the formation of the government, which was expected to be concluded in a matter of days, has been lingering on, morphing into a slow and painful process amid rising violent altercations between communities mostly in the Bekaa Valley and Tripoli regions. Negotiations between the various parties have turned into a battle of will and words over which faction would name the four sovereign ministers – namely, defence, interior, finance, and foreign affairs.

Lebanese factions had previously agreed that President Suleiman would name two Christians for two of the positions (reportedly interior and defence) while the opposition and majority would each take one of the others. FPM allies Hezbollah and Amal occupied the foreign affairs ministry in the last government, and seem to be keen on keeping this key position, especially in light of regional tensions.

“We believe there is yet another attempt to marginalise the largest Christian block, which is represented by the FPM,” says MP Brahim Kenaan, member of the FPM, which currently holds 22 seats in a parliament of 168 members.

What is ultimately at stake in the re-partition of the four main seats is power and influence: each sovereign portfolio will ultimately allow factions to exercise and undoubtedly bolster their status, which may in turn affect the outcome of the upcoming 2009 legislative elections.

Beyond the ministries, each faction is eyeing the new balance of power that will emerge with the next parliament.

Mustapha Allouch, MP from the Future movement, underlines that the main problem remains Aoun’s refusal to allocate the defence ministry to Orthodox minister Elias Murr, who currently occupies the position. “Aoun does not want to allow Elias Murr to remain defence minister, and would like to replace him with General Issam Abu Jamra, an FPM member,” he says.

The MP believes that Aoun’s position is strongly supported by Hezbollah, for which this particular portfolio remains a very sensitive issue – Hezbollah wants to maintain its military arsenal in spite of the majority’s demand for the ‘Party of God’ to disarm and join the army. “For Aoun, the defence ministry would also be a satisfactory substitute for losing the presidency,” explains Allouch. General Aoun was one of the main candidates in the presidential election race, before the majority and opposition agreed on consensus president Suleiman.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal party, suggested that if the deadlock was not rapidly resolved, an interim government could be formed, a proposal rejected by Allouch.

The formation of the government is not the only issue of contention between Aoun and the majority. The head of the FPM has also suggested that the Lebanese prime minister’s constitutional rights need to be revised, prompting criticism from the majority as well as from some of his allies, such as Berri. The Lebanese constitution currently states that executive power is in the hands of the government, which is headed by a Sunni prime minister.

“Lebanon is equipped with a parliament that is the only body allowed to rule in such matters, hence any constitutional amendment must be subject to a vote, which ultimately will be determined by the majority in power,” says Allouch.

In a country where democracy runs only skin deep, sectarianism and tribalism seem to be on the rise, as each community and political faction jockeys for positions, trying to carve out a larger piece of the Lebanese pie. As hope of an immediate solution slowly fades, the current caretaker government seems to be staying in power for now, while rumours spread that it may in fact remain in place until the 2009 elections.

It seems that once again, Lebanese are unable to rise up to the task of building their nation without the interference of foreign powers. “The only solution I foresee,” concludes Allouch, “depends on yet another Arab intervention to broker a new deal.”

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