Beirut: In a major breakthrough in Lebanon, two key obstacles have been overcome, paving the way for Prime Minister-designate Sa’ad Hariri to finally announce the creation of his third cabinet, possibly today or by Friday. The first is issue of how the right-wing Christian party Lebanese Forces will be represented, and second is whether or not Sunni politicians opposed to Hariri will get to join his cabinet. According to sources in Beirut, names are being finalised and last-minute touches are being given by Hariri, who will carry the final list to President Michel Aoun, where they will jointly sign the decree.
The Lebanese Forces, a powerful Maronite party, won 15 seats in last May’s parliamentary election, allowing them — by norm — to claim one ministerial post for every four MPs. LF leader Samir Geagea insisted on the post of deputy prime minister, in addition to four sovereignty portfolios. He got the deputy premiership, and three rather than four cabinet seats, none of them sovereignty posts. Instead of sulking, Geagea accepted the offer, although it deprived him the powerful portfolios of information and public health, replacing them instead with the more ceremonial seats of culture and labour.
Geageasaid: “The easiest thing for us to do was to stay out of the cabinet,” adding that there was no such thing as a “rotten portfolio”. The main opponents of Geagea’s bloc were members of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), headed by Aoun’s son-in-law, Jibran Basil. For years, they have been struggling against Geageafor leadership of the Lebanese Maronite Christian community. In May, they won 29 seats and tried hard to limit his share in the upcoming government by, for example, denying him the deputy premiership. Aoun intervened, however, surrendering the post to the LF.
The deputy premiership will remain in the hands of Geagea’s trusted man Gassan Hasbani, who has held the job since December 2016. A 46-year-old Orthodox Christian, he was raised in the UK, educated at University of Westminster, and worked previously with the global consulting firm Booze & Company. The remaining LF portfolios will be going to May Chidiac (Culture), Kamil Abu Sulaiman (Labour), and Richard Kouyoumjian (Social Affairs). Chidiac is a celebrated television presenter who famously survived an assassination attempt in 2005, while Abu Sulaiman is a prominent lawyer, and Kouyoumjian is a French and US-trained dentist turned politician. Chidiac and Abu Sulaiman are Maronites, while Kouyoumjian is an Armenian Orthodox.
The Aounist Bloc
Current foreign minister Basil will keep his job, in his capacity as head of the FPM, while two of his allies, Avedis Gidanian and Nada Al Boustani will get the ministries of Tourism and Energy, respectively. Guidanian is a veteran Armenian politician with a degree in physics, who has held the portfolio since 2016, representing the Armenian Tashnag Party, while Al Boustani is an Aounist who presently serves as adviser to the Ministry of Energy.
Other Aoun allies lined up to the join the cabinet are Salim Jreissati, a retired judge, who will be keeping his job as Minister of Justice, and Elias Bou Saab, a current adviser to the president who served as Minister of Higher Education in 2014-2016. He is married to renowned Lebanese singer Julia Boutros.
Question remain on who will assume the ministry of presidential affairs, incumbent Pierre Rafoul or Naji Al Boustani. The latter is a former culture minister who was close to ex-President Emile Lahhoud, while Rafoul is a senior member of the FPM, who has authored a biography of Aoun.
The Sunni opposition
The last post earmarked for the president is that of “Minister of State for Combating Corruption.” Hezbollah is requesting that one of its Sunni allies in parliament — probably ex minister Faisal Karami of Tripoli — is named minister. Karami, who heads a bloc of six MPs, is demanding representation as leader of the “Sunni Opposition”. Hariri has persistently refused to comply, claiming that Sunni representation lies only in the hands of his own Future Party. To break the gridlock, Aoun suggested giving one of his seats in the cabinet to Hezbollah, thereby keeping Hariri’s Sunni bloc intact. Previously the post of Minister of State for Combating Corruption was in the hands of a Greek Orthodox from the FPM.
The FPM basically gets to keep all its strategic posts, namely defence and foreign affairs, surrendering less politically sensitive portfolios like environment, which has gone to the Amal Movement that is headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Amal and Hezbollah
The two Shiite parties, strongly allied during the parliamentary elections, are operating as one bloc in the cabinet formation process. Amal will get to keep Ali Hasan Khalil as minister of finance, replacing Gazi Zeiter at the Agriculture Ministry with Hussam Lakis, a Berri protégé. Its three portfolios will be complimented by three others from Hezbollah (State Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs, Health, Youth & Sports).
The three remaining Druze seats will go to two allies of Walid Jumblatt, Wael Abou Faour (Education) and Akram Shayeb (Industry). A third post was being contested until Jumblatt willingly gave it up in favour of his Druze rival Emir Talal Arslan, who will be naming a member of his team to the job, in accordance with Aoun.