Damascus: Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has finally managed to form a government, ending 12 months of political stalemate. What immediately attracted everybody’s attention were two things: First, there was a star in its ranks, and the only regionally recognised name among the 24 ministers - George Qordahi. He is a celebrated television host who was named Minister of Information by Mikati.
The second eye-opener was that there was only one woman in the team, Najla Riachti, a former ambassador to the UN, now appointed Minister of Administrative Development. Here is a look at what the cabinet has to offer, however, in terms of political balance.
The third Mikati cabinet is composed of 12 Muslims and 12 Christians. The twin parties got a total of six portfolios, 3 for Hezbollah and 3 for the Amal Movement. Hezbollah got the Public Works, Transportation, and Agriculture Ministries, losing the Health Ministry that it had controlled throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Public Works was very important to the Iran-backed party, since this is where all the money will pour, when/if the reconstruction of Beirut begins.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who had tried to form a cabinet until stepping down in July, had persistently refused giving them the Ministry of Public Works, fearing that this would hamper reconstruction, scare off Arab investors, and possibly, trigger sanctions from the United States.
Their choice of minister is Ali Hamieh, is a 44-year old technocrat with a PhD in Electronics and Optical Communications from the University of Brittany in France. He has been tasked with the portfolios of Public Works and Transport. As for Agriculture, Hezbollah chose Abbas Al Hajj Hussein, a 46-year old former journalist who previously worked with France24.
Portfolios of Amal
The Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was awarded the portfolios of finance, labour, and culture. The Ministry of Finance has historically been held by the Amal Movement, with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (who has headed Amal since the Lebanese Civil War), insisting that this portfolio becomes a permanent right for his party. His choice of minister is the French-trained Yusuf Khalil, director of the Financial Operations Department at the Central Bank of Lebanon.
President Michel Aoun had been reluctant to give the portfolio to Amal, claiming that this contradicts with an initiative made by French President Emmanuel Macron last September, calling for rotation of cabinet posts among political parties and sects. He is also unhappy with Berri’s choice of minister, claiming that Khalil is close to the Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, who Aoun and Hezbollah have been trying to unseat for the past year, with no success.
For the Ministry of Culture, Nabih Berri chose Mohammad Murtada, a judge at the court of urgent affairs, and for the Ministry of Labour, Mustafa Bayram, the former legal observer at the Auditing Department at Lebanon’s Cabinet of Ministers.
The six portfolios handled by Hezbollah and Amal are political lightweights, with all sensitive portfolios going either to Sunni Muslims or Christians, yet they are enough to give the two Shiite parties veto power over any decisions taken within the Mikati cabinet.
The Hariri share
Hariri surprised observers by extending support to Najib Mikati, who was chosen to replace him last July by President Aoun. He has been accommodated with the powerful Ministry of Interior, which he insisted will only go to a Sunni Muslim affiliated with his Future Movement. During the ill-fated talks over his own cabinet, Hariri had come to blows with Aoun, who made claim to the Ministry of Interior, saying that in accordance with the Macron initiative, it should not remain in the hands of the Future Movement.
Hariri tried meeting him midway, suggesting that he appoint a Christian to the post, rather than a Sunni Muslim, but one affiliated with the Future Movement, which Aoun rejected. The post has now gone to Bassam Mawlawi, a Hariri protégé and former judge in Beirut and Northern Lebanon.
Mikati also gave in to Hariri’s demands, giving him a say on the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. Aoun had demanded that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is chosen exclusively by the President and his son-in-law, Gibran Bassil of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). They were forced to agree on a compromise candidate, however, who is acceptable both to them and Hariri, Abdullah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the US in 1983-1990.
Hariri also got the strategic Ministry of Health, which under the previous two governments, had been handled by Hezbollah. The new minister Firas Abyad, a gastrointestinal surgeon, has risen to fame over the past year and a half for heading the state-run Rafik Hariri Hospital that has been handling COVID-19 patients.
Ordinary Lebanese respect him, considering him tough, reliable, hard-working, and with a clean financial record. He is a graduate of the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB).
Other portfolios given to Hariri are the Ministry of Environment, which went to another protégé named Nasser Yassin, head of Crisis Observatory Department at AUB.
The Aonist Bloc
One of the stumbling blocs for Hariri in November 2019-July 2020 was Aoun’s insistence that he gets to name all Christian ministers in the new government, and takes strategic portfolios like defence and foreign affairs. Aoun let go of the first demand, and was given 6 out of 33 seats, which still gives him the largest number of seats in the government.
That is justified by the fact that his parliamentary bloc, headed by his son-in-law, currently includes 29 MPs and is the largest in the chamber, entitling him to more cabinet seats than any other party in Lebanon.
Aoun agreed to co-share naming the Minister of Foreign Affairs with Hariri, but the post will remain affiliated with FPM and part of its cabinet share. In exchange for that concession, Aoun has been granted the powerful posts of defence and justice, in addition to the portfolios of energy, tourism, and social affairs.
Christians hold on to Defence Ministry
The Ministry of Defence has always been one of the FPM’s many demands, having been held by the Aounists for more than a decade. His choice for the Ministry of Defence is Maurice Salem, a retired army general whose final position at the Lebanese Army was Head of Military Medicine.
The Ministry of Energy is one reward for the FPM that Aoun and Bassil have fought for aggressively. Lebanon is currently engaged in maritime talks with Israel, under auspices of the United Nations, which when concluded, will allow the country to drill for gas, expected to be found in large quantities in its maritime waters. When/if that discovery is made, the Ministry of Energy will play a crucial role in handling the reserves, explaining why the Aounists wanted it so badly.
As for the Ministry of Justice, it will be important to protect the Aounists from any legal proceedings over the explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020. A legal investigation is currently underway and it has already charged many of Aoun’s allies with “criminal negligence” including ex-Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three of his ministers.
By controlling the Ministry of Justice, Aoun hopes that the investigations will stop there and not reach his inner circle or any of his party members. His pick for the Ministry of Justice is Henry Khoury, former head of Lebanon’s State Shura Council.
One of Aoun’s concessions was agreeing to scrap the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, which was part of his share but has now been abolished.
Najib Mikati has given two cabinet posts to the Christian Marada Party of Suleiman Frangieh, a ranking member of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition who has his eyes set on the presidency. Frangieh’s share in parliament is small, with no more than 3 out of 128 in the Chamber of Deputies. He has been given a cabinet that is more than what his parliamentary representation merits, via the Ministry of Information, which went to George Qordahi, and the Ministry of Telecommunications, which went to Johnny Corm.
Marada is strongly pro-Syrian and backed by Hezbollah, and so is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which got the post of deputy prime minister. That raises the number of ministers who are in favour of re-engagement with Syria to 15 out of 33, making it the most pro-Syrian government to come to power since the assassination of Rafik Hariri back in 2005.