Beirut: Cracks are emerging in Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s relationship with his Shiite allies in Hezbollah, over their refusal to join the cabinet of Prime Minister-designate Sa’ad Hariri unless their Sunni allies are represented.
If they are accommodated, this would break the Hariri family’s monopoly over Sunni representation in Lebanon, legalising a “Sunni Opposition” within the government.
Hariri has refused to bend, suggesting that he might step down if Hezbollah insists on its demand, putting the ball in Aoun’s court.
The Hezbollah proposal is not new. It started out as a suggestion shortly after the parliamentary elections concluded last May but has slowly evolved into a dictate and unnegotiable condition.
The Aoun era cannot succeed, at a bare minimum, unless Hariri succeeds in creating a government.
Although strong allies for over ten-years, Aoun has parted ways with Hezbollah on this specific topic, describing their demand as “out-of-place and unjustified.”
“It is in our interest to empower the prime minister, not weaken him,” Aoun said last week, speaking on the second anniversary of his inauguration last week.
“Political tactics might damage the overall national strategy, creating a breach in national unity,” Aoun tweeted, referring to the same crisis in a more subtle manner on October 31.
Aoun has also categorically refused a proposal floating in Lebanese political circles, dropped by Hezbollah, asking him to give up one of his Christian seats in government to the so-called “Sunni Opposition.”
Currently, the Aounists directly control eight portfolios in the Lebanese government, including defense, economy, justice, energy, and presidential affairs. The suggestion is that Aoun surrenders the portfolio of presidential affairs to Hezbollah’s Sunni allies, currently earmarked for Pierre Rafoul, a ranking member of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and biographer of the president.
They are not in a position to surrender any of these posts, asking Hezbollah to give up either ministry of health or youth affairs.
Alternatively their allies in the Amal Movement can also give up a Shiite seat in their possession, either the portfolios of state development, agriculture, or finance.
The aging 83-year old Lebanese president believes that he has already given too many concessions; surrendering the post of deputy prime minister to Hariri’s allies in the powerful all-Christian Lebanese Forces (LF).
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah has vowed to retain his demand for appointing an independent Sunni to the cabinet.
Nasrallah also said that “a caretaker government is better than one that doesn’t respect standards (of confessional representation)”.
This means that the leader doesn’t mind the continuation of a caretaker government and keeping the country in political limbo.
Despite their stance, Hezbollah leaders have refrained from criticising Aoun in public.
Hezbollah argues that because six of its Sunni allies form a bloc in Parliament and are entitled to a minimum of one, possibly two, seats in the Hariri cabinet.
They are pushing either for ex-Youth Minister Faisal Karami, scion of a historic Sunni political family in Tripoli, or Abdul Rahim Murad, a former defense minister from the Bekka Valley—both are pro-Syrian and Iran-backed.
To date, Hariri has repeatedly turned down their requests for an audience.
This isn’t the first time Hezbollah has strong-armed the government. In 2014, Hezbollah forced former Prime Minister Najib Mikati to appoint Karami as youth minister back.
Afterwards Karami earned a reputation as the “sixth Shiite minister in government.”
Speaking to Gulf News, Murad defended Hezbollah’s position.
“The Sunnis should have two blocs in parliament just as the Druze have two blocs and the Shiites have two blocs,” he said.
The religious minority Druze have two blocs in parliament—one following Walid Junblatt and the other Talal Arslan.
Shiites also have two blocs—Hezbollah and Amal.
“Forty percent of the Lebanese people voted for us. We deserve representation.”
Hariri insists that if no solution is found, he will decline the premiership.
“If this happens, the Aoun Era—already close to failure—will collapse completely,” says veteran Lebanese journalist Asa’ad Beshara.
Aoun is supposed to remain president until 2022.
But his presidency was contingent on the assumption that Hariri would become prime minister, he told Gulf News.
Back in 2016, Hariri supported Aoun’s presidential bid, which was strongly backed by Hezbollah, provided that he returns to the job from which he was ejected—by Hezbollah—back in January 2011.
If the premiership goes to a Hezbollah ally, “then the entire Lebanese state will get sanctioned by the West, said Beshara.”
Wrapping up he stressed: “The Aoun era cannot succeed, at a bare minimum, unless Hariri succeeds in creating a government.”