Now that the decks are cleared and the Cabinet has been appointed, Lebanon can move forward again. Pomp and ceremony is replacing haggling, division and deadlock. The Lebanese can breathe again. It’s out of the frying pan and into the real hard “ship-shape” world of political governance.
Sa’ad Hariri quickly took to the limelight after he was appointed by Lebanese President Michel Aoun last month to forge a new government and start putting the country back on its two feet, reeling from the problems of mounting wastes, electricity outages and a host of other issues. It took him less than two months, which is a miracle, to come up with a workable list of Cabinet ministers and that says a lot about his political dexterity, sharp mind, astuteness and possibly wit as well.
Tammam Salam, his predecessor and the outgoing prime minister, was also the caretaker president since May 2014, as politicians couldn’t make up their minds for more than 10 months on whom to choose, to patch together a workable cabinet to run the country. And when Salam did manage to hammer out a Cabinet, it barely functioned for obvious constitutional hiccups.
Notwithstanding the context in which Hariri came to power, the nod-and-the-wink, horse-trading and the “old-boy network of I scratch your back, you scratch mine”, the final agreement on the government can only be seen as a “made-in-Lebanon” paraphernalia sort of event, specific to the Lebanese psyche. In spite of the past boomerang recriminations, back-biting, no-show parliamentary sessions, Lebanese politicians are finally about to turn a brand new leaf.
In all fairness, it must be said that Hariri, with a little help from the Lebanese political classes, of which Aoun has become the prima facie, he has managed to turn the political ball around by bringing nearly all the political parties into the new Cabinet.
This is the period of entente government, of turning swords into ploughshares, a cabinet based on consensus, accord, agreement, ministers working together, fractious parties with different ideologies, point-of-views and even allegiances with MPs turning up on the parliamentary steps to settle scores. This time around, there were no more talks of divisions that marked the long-fractured Lebanese political process along the two main March 8 and March 14 Groups. In the time-honoured tradition of the Lebanese way of doing things, politicians thought it was time to engage and to involve themselves in politics and politicking. No more talk of external alliances and meddling in the affairs of other countries — as is the case with Hezbollah. At least for the time being, this has become the era of building. Despite the difficulties — and despite the fact that he is on record, wanting to protect Lebanon from the “regional fires” of neighbouring Syria — Hariri, through extensive consultation, has moved swiftly to create a viable Cabinet and succeeded in integrating all the parties and factions under one government. It was touch-and-go until the last minute, but in the end, all came around.
Only the Phalange Party was left in the political wilderness, simply because it refused to play ball and criticised the government for keeping Hezbollah in its ranks. The party also didn’t like what was being offered to them — two portfolios — saw it as a clear snub and preferred to stay out. But this didn’t wash down with others and failed to reflect what was obviously the new spirit as all joined in the political ballyhoo of government: Hariri’s Mustaqbal Party, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement under his Change and Reform Bloc, Lebanese Forces, Progressive Socialist Party, Amal, Merida, Hezbollah, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) all were given seats. They all said ‘yes’ willingly and eagerly for what was being deemed as a “different” political era that is still expected to be boisterous, practical and maybe recrimination-free, that is if you can get that in Lebanese politics. The Christians were represented, so were the Shiites, Sunnis and the Druze — all in a line with the Lebanese system. All or most were happy or appeared to be so.
A number of exciting things happened this time around as well. Five new ministries were created. While the cynics may argue this was due to the social fabric of Lebanese politics as ministerial seats were hiked up from 24, the usual number, to 30. Nevertheless, five portfolios were created, including Ministry of Refugees’ Affairs, to manage the nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, the Anti-Corruption Ministry, which can be regarded as a novel one, Ministry of Presidential Affairs, Ministry for Women Affairs, which is another eye-opener. Moreover, while there are only four females in the Lebanese parliament, they enjoy much more power than in many other Arab countries. Finally, there is the Ministry of Human Rights.
Lebanon, for the first time, has a woman member in government. It is surprising that the country took so long to have one, given its liberal outlook. While logically, the Ministry for Women should be filled by a woman, in this case it is not so. The portfolio has been handed over to Jean Oghassabian from Hariri’s Mustaqbal Party, an Armenian-Lebanese army-man-turned-politician who has for long served as a minister. Lebanon’s first woman minister, Enaya Ezzeddine, holds a portfolio in the Administrative Development Ministry — as an Amal deputy.
Hariri is maintaining a stiff upper lip. He knows the road ahead is difficult. He has been prime minister before, serving for 14 months — from 2009 until early 2011. What he wants now is to prepare for the coming parliamentary elections to be held in May. He wants to hold them under a new electoral law that seeks to be more representative, terming his new administration as an “elections government”. Two snags are already being seen. Will the ministers allow a new law to be passed and will they indeed want a new parliament, bearing in mind they had no elections since 2009 and extending their term of office twice? So fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, Hariri, his ministers and indeed President Aoun himself continue to bask in the limelight.
— Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK