Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

LEBANON: Fresh Disputes Shadow New Govt

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Jul 21 2008 (IPS) - The new government’s first official snapshot taken at the presidential palace last week was certainly worth a thousand words. While 28 of the 30 cabinet ministers were dressed in the traditional white suits, two – Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi and State Minister Wael Abou Faour – wore dark colours. Between them they emphasised some of Lebanon’s eternal dichotomies.

Lebanon’s government was finally formed Jul. 11 some six weeks after the Doha agreement, which allowed for the election of consensus president Michel Suleiman and the implementation of a new electoral law. The agreement put an end to the week-long civil conflict between the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority (including the Sunni Future movement, Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataeb party) and the pro-Syrian Shia-dominated parliamentary minority (comprising the Shia Amal and Hezbollah parties) allied to the Christian Free Patriotic movement (FPM).

The cabinet held its first meeting in the presence of President Suleiman, who had just returned from France where he attended the Mediterranean summit and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

After the government’s meeting, which lasted a mere half hour, Information Minister Tarek Mitri announced that the cabinet’s first priority was to work on the ministerial declaration underlining the new government’s policy until the 2009 parliamentary elections. Mitri declared that a committee – consisting of majority ministers Abu Faour, Mohammed Shateh, Nassib Lahoud and himself as well as minority members Elias Skaff, Gebran Bassil, Mohammed Fneish and Fawzi Salloukh – would be working on the issue.

Mitri also announced that President Suleiman briefed the cabinet on the Mediterranean summit and talks with President Assad, and announced Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem’s visit to Beirut, expected later this week.

Although the formation of the government has brought new hope on the political scene, many politicians believe that the road to the ministerial statement is paved with numerous obstacles. “We do not have a government yet, but a project of a government,” Carlos Edde, head of the Lebanese National Block, an independent party formerly part of the majority movement, tells IPS. “The government will be actualised only after an understanding is reached on its strategy for the coming months and the subsequent parliamentary vote of confidence.”

The politician points out that sovereignty, control of the country’s borders, and Hezbollah’s weapons are the major hurdles facing the new government. Since the death of Rafik Hariri in 2005, the subsequent 2006 war with Israel and the May 7 civil conflict – during which Hezbollah took over Beirut and its suburbs, leading to some 67 deaths – the parliamentary majority has been requesting that Hezbollah’s weapons be discussed. The ‘Party of God’ is officially the only Lebanese party permitted its own arsenal, which is continuously supplied by Iran through Lebanon’s porous borders with Syria.

Diverging views concerning the government’s priorities have already been put forth by the local media. FPM member Brahim Kenaan was quoted by local newswire Naharnet as saying, “We demand setting the schedule for a parliamentary session to ratify the bill on electoral constituencies adopted by the Doha Accord.” The MP believes the session should be held prior to the cabinet winning a vote of confidence, a sign that Lebanon’s political crisis is far from resolved.

The 30-member cabinet, which consists of 16 ministers of the ruling majority, 11 ministers of the minority and three ministers named by the president, reflects Lebanon’s expansive political divide. Dissention was clearly seen early on with the nomination of Socialist Syrian National Party head Ali Qanso, whose name was rejected at first by anti-Syrian majority prime minister Fouad Siniora.

Important posts have been divided equally between the majority and opposition, with the former securing the finance ministry and the latter the foreign policy ministry.

In spite of Siniora’s recent statement after the government was formed that political factions had decided to “manage their disputes through democratic institutions and dialogue, and not through force and intimidation,” Edde warns that one-third of the ministerial seats are in the hands of the minority opposition, allowing them to veto any decision. The recent Syrian-French rapprochement, however, may be the wild card that tilts the balance in the direction of precarious stability over the next few months.

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