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Lebanon: New All-Male Government Formed Amidst Continued Wrangling

After almost five months of protracted negotiations and political bickering, Lebanon's Hezballah-led March 8 alliance finally announced a new exclusively male, 30-minister government to be headed by Sunni billionaire Najib Mikati.

Qifa Nabki has provided a list of the new cabinet ministers, as well as a breakdown per political and sect affiliation.

The new Beirut government has, however, already run into obstacles, with two ministers reportedly resigning only hours after the formation of the cabinet.

Hezballah and its predominantly Christian allies triggered a collapse of the previous unity government led by Saad Al-Hariri in January 2011. The Hezballah initiated move was motivated by a deep concern that Hezballah members were to be indicted by the United Nation's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Saad's father. The Syrian-backed March 8 alliance successfully enticed Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to renounce his allegiance to Hariri's March 14 bloc, providing Hezballah and its allies with the necessary numbers to form a majority government without its March 14 rivals. Despite gaining sufficient numbers to form cabinet on its own, the March 8 alliance struggled through five months of internal wrangling over who to allocate which cabinet seats and portfolios. Dismay was also expressed at the exclusion of women in the new government, with all cabinet posts awarded to men, and thus, attracting accusations of Lebanese politics as an exclusive gentleman's club:

Mustapha at Beirut Spring blogged his disappointment at the exclusion of women from the new government:

I can’t get over the fact that there’s not a single woman in our new government. Not one. Zip. Zero.. Zilch.. Nada.. None..

This can’t be right. In the past, we always had a few token female ministers as a symbolic gesture to the aspiration that women, in an ideal world, should be well represented. They humored the feminists as it were, but this time they don’t even pretend to care.

Indeed, the announcement of a new government evoked little enthusiasm amongst Lebanese bloggers, most of whom have long been disenchanted with the country's inefficient political elite.

Karl reMarks analysed the latest development, however, as a significant shift from consensual to majoritarian politics, with the new March 8 government abandoning the previous national unity model between all major parties in the country.

Whether this provides Lebanon with greater governance remains to seen. Karl reMarks certainly is not optimistic about any short-term prospects, but the evolution from consensual to majoritarian politics is, nevertheless, a progressive move worth noting:

I called this ‘the Cabinet of Curiosities’ because in many ways it breaks away with convention to overcome the paralysis in the Lebanese political system and the failure of March 8 to offer a solid programme of governance. The unequal number of Sunni and Shiite minsters is one of those ‘innovations’, dispensing with the token gesture of appointing women ministers is another. The one distinctive aspect about it is that it created a de facto parliamentary opposition for the first time in a long while in Lebanon. Said oppositions consists primarily of March 14, which will have to restructure itself to perform this role effectively. I have little faith that this will actually happen, this being the flipside of March 8’s inability to govern. Nevertheless, the success of both in playing those roles would represent a significant step forward for Lebanese politics which has been stuck for too long in the vicious cycle of consensual politics.

It is equally impossible to discuss a new development in Lebanese politics without referring to the main patron, Syria.

The latest turmoil in Syria has kept Lebanon's key political players on edge, and several commentators in the blogosphere offered their observations on Syria's role in the formation of the new Lebanese government, beginning with Karl reMarks:

With the visible decline of the Syrian regime’s authority at home and abroad, it’s worth considering what this statement actually means. Had the Syrian regime really considered the formation of the cabinet a priority, why did the process take so long among a group made up exclusively of its ‘allies.’ Furthermore, with the caretaker government of Saad Hariri bending over backwards to accommodate the Syrian regime since the uprising in Syria started, and going out of its way to avoid confronting it, I wonder what the significance of a Syrian-influenced cabinet is. The one aspect that this reveals is how dependent the entire Lebanese political class is on Syrian patronage, to the extent that it has become entirely incapable of any independent decision making in the absence of clear signals originating from Damascus. The emphasis on the STL in this context is misplaced, for all intents and purposes Syria has been exonerated by the STL leaving Hezbollah in the dock. It’s worth nothing that the West has declined to use the STL as a tool against the Syrian regime during the past few weeks when it was desperately looking for soft instruments to apply pressure.
Reader comments on Qifa Nabki's blog post on the new government have also largely focused on the implications of the turmoil in Syria:

Sayke:

This is a mostly a victory for bashar al-assad. at a time when his regime has been shown (again) to be just another brutal dictatorship, this demonstrates to other rulers that being a brutal dictator works. if you play regional spoiler, and hold the stability of neighbors and the larger region hostage, you will not be confronted by the international community. threatening to assassinate political opponents of your proxies in neighboring countries works. nobody will stop you.

Danny:

All along I have been harping away that it was not matter of negotiations…That Syria had the line up and called the shots. they think Arslan is dispensable as far as they have Jumblat as well as the Thief… Could you ever fathom that Berri would willingly tilt the sectarian balance if it was not Syria’s command? wallaw?

Again, I stick to my “gunz”. It has been Syria all long looking for the vacuum. Ghassan well put re: Caretaker government where HA controls all security apparatus.

Prophet:

Finally, a Lebanese cabinet was formed .The question is why now, and not four months ago. For months ago, Syria was more stable, the Arab spring has not reached the Syrian coast, and Assad’s fear of the STL was his main concern. Now that his whole regime is in danger, The STL seems to be a less of a threat, compared to his fear of loosing his power, and everything else. A friendly Lebanese government might suit him better than a political vacuum. Ghassan’s point of Marada and HA securing the defense and interior mister is very important, but not so much of the fall out of the STL’s indictment, but more so of the need to protect Syria’s border and infiltration of Syrian’s opponent from Lebanese soil.

If this cabinet receives a vote of confidence from the parliament, we will see a sudden policy and practical changes in the ways Lebanese authority deals with Syria and the trouble facing Assad’s regime. More security will be put on Lebanese /Syrian borders, more security cooperation will take place, and more open support of Syria’s regime will be announced by this cabinet.

Also, the possibility of a wider conflict would require a friendly cabinet, that would support HA’s resistance policy as well as Syrian position against the US and Israel.

The formation of Lebanon's new government comes at a crucial time as the Syrian turmoil shows no signs of abating. Lebanon's political life is largely dependent on the power that sits in Damascus. Should that power become unstable, Lebanon's government will face an impossible challenge of preventing a ripple effect in the tiny, divided country.

Thumbnail image by Flickr user nathanm (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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