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Case Analysis 14 May, 2013

The Formation of a New Government and State-wide Consensus in Lebanon

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

On April 6, 2013, in the wake of Lebanese Prime Minister Najeeb Miqati's resignation on March 22, General Michel Sulieman, president of the Lebanese Republic, tasked MP Tamam Salam with the formation of a new cabinet. Salam's new mandate comes at a difficult time as his country is wracked by political and sectarian polarization. The sources of this polarization can be found both domestically, in the sectarian-based electoral bill, and abroad, in the ramifications of the Syrian crisis.

This report focuses on the factors that led to the resignation of Miqati's government following a period of relative calm from July 8, 2011 to March 22, 2013. It also addresses the likelihood of the formation of a new government and the opportunities for an approving consensus in the midst of ongoing division in Lebanon.

Miqati's Resignation: All bets are off

The toppling of Saad Hariri's government at the outset of 2011 was an infraction against not only the equilibrium put in place by a Saudi-Syrian understanding, which was enshrined in the 2008 Doha Agreement, but also the allowances this equilibrium made for a stable and resilient government. By unraveling the Hariri government in 2011,[1] the March 8 Bloc[2], influenced heavily by Hezbollah, negated these understandings.

The March 8 Bloc's toppling of Hariri's government was a preemptive measure to avoid the implications of an expected indictment of several Hezbollah members by the international tribunal charged with investigating the February 14, 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. It also allowed Bashar al-Assad's regime to express renewed confidence following the reinstitution of an American ambassador (Robert Ford) to Damascus at the end of 2010. It also created new balances of powers in Lebanon, manifested in the way in which MP Walid Jumblatt and his parliamentary backers sided with the March 8 Bloc in supporting Najeeb Miqati's nomination to succeed Hariri. Jumblatt's view was that the toppling of Hariri ushered in a new era in which Syria could become the most influential regional player in Lebanon, empowering Syria's local allies in the March 8 Bloc. With Jumblatt's support, Miqati secured the 68 votes out of a total of 128 from Lebanon's Chamber of Deputies. The March 14 Bloc, which counters the March 8 Bloc, declined to take part in the Miqati government.

While such a majority government was uncharacteristic for Lebanon, where cabinets based on consensus are the norm, Miqati's government was able to function for a relatively reasonable period of time for a number of reasons. Firstly, the outbreak of the Syrian revolution gave rise to a preference for domestic calm among the Lebanese. While the Lebanese were themselves sharply divided over the question of events in Syria, the overriding priority for most of the country's political forces was a "wait and see" approach in order to spare Lebanon the consequences of events next door.

Motivated by such considerations, Jumblatt's parliamentary group ensured the stability and continuation of Miqati's government despite a number of setbacks, most notably the case of former minister Michel Samaha.[3] A second possible factor was that international sentiment, particularly in Western countries, viewed Hezbollah's presence within the new cabinet as a safety valve that could prevent escalatory measures, particularly with respect to the Israelis. They also felt that Hezbollah's membership in the government would make a repeat of the May 7, 2008 incident-during which the Lebanese capital was wracked by political violence at a time when Hezbollah was politically isolated-unlikely.

The fact that there has been no discussion of an indictment from the international court's investigation of Rafik Hariri's assassination lends credence to the idea that there was tacit Western approval for the Miqati government. The same could be said about the fact that the EU rushed to dissuade Miqati from resigning in the wake of the assassination of State Intelligence Chief Wissam al-Hassan (associated with the March 14 Bloc) in October 2012. At the time, Miqati's resignation was rejected by President Michel Sulieman.[4] Regionally, there was a tacit Saudi-Iranian understanding that Lebanon ought to be gradually isolated from the ramifications of the Syrian crisis.

Nonetheless, a number of features that took shape in Lebanon during 2013 deeply impacted Miqati's decision to resign. Firstly, there was renewed controversy over an electoral law for the 2013 parliamentary election, especially since all major Christian political groups in the country came out in support of the Orthodox Gathering Law, a bill that would see voters' choices restricted to candidates from their own confession. However, divisions over the electoral law did not fall along the lines between the March 8 and March 14 Blocs, as would normally have been the case. Instead, different groups from within each camp came out either in support of the bill or in opposition to it. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM, headed by General Michel Aoun), a Christian group which forms part of the March 8 Bloc supported the bill, with the implicit support of its allies Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. On the other hand, a number of other Christian groups, such as the March 14-aligned Phalange and Lebanese Forces parties and the non-aligned National Liberal Party. Meanwhile, Hariri's March 14-aligned Future Movement, Jumblatt's parliamentary group, and the president were all opposed to it. Prime Minister Najeeb Miqati vociferously came out against the bill on February 23 declaring it to be "in violation of the spirit of [sectarian] coexistence [within Lebanon]".

Ultimately, Lebanon's official policy of "self-preservation" (or "disassociation") regarding the Syrian crisis failed. While all of Lebanon's political blocs openly profess their dedication to this policy in principle, in practice this failed due to the direct involvement of a number of Lebanese groups in the Syrian conflict, including the involvement of Hezbollah members who fight alongside the regime, as well as the logistical and material support supplied by Hariri's Future Movement to the opposition fighters. Officially, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour's statements, in which he criticized the Arab League's position on Syria, effectively violated Lebanon's official stance of disassociation. Mansour's statements were denounced domestically and regionally by a number of Arab organizations, most notably by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which emphasized the importance of Lebanon abiding by its own approach of disassociation.[5] The GCC's statements irritated the Lebanon's president and prime minister, who responded by declaring that Mansour's comments were a "personal point of view" and not representative of the Lebanese government's positions.

Faced with the unraveling of the official policy of disassociation, Miqati was no longer able to quell public uproar within his support base centered in Tripoli[6], which is vocally supportive of the opposition in neighboring Syria. This further meant that Miqati's official line of protecting the political role of Lebanon's Sunni sect, which he had used to justify his assumption of the prime ministership alongside the March 8 group two years ago, was no longer convincing to his supporters. One could then argue that Miqati's desire to hold onto his popular support base was another factor driving the former prime minister to resign.

As far as the March 8 Bloc is concerned, regionally and internationally, Miqati's resignation was due to American-Saudi pressures on the prime minister to rearrange domestic affairs within Lebanon in a manner consistent with efforts to isolate the Syrian regime. In particular, this includes the move to give the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, control of Syria's seat at the Arab League.[7]

While all of the above factors may have contributed to Miqati's departure, the most important factor remains the change in the way the March 8 Bloc administered the government. After its previous approach of containing and coordinating with the former prime minister, the coalition began to impose its directives not only on Miqati, but on the president and Jumblatt's camp as well. These directives began to affect such matters as the electoral law and the official statements, including those made by Foreign Minister Mansour, as well as the decision not to renew the term of Internal Security Chief Ashraf Rifi. With Miqati now out of the picture, a new era, dominated by new balances of power, has taken hold in Lebanon.

Tamam Salam's Cabinet: The Difficult Task Ahead

The consultations that led to Beirut MP Tamam Salam's nomination for prime minister were unexpectedly rapid for two main reasons. Jumblatt-aligned deputies echoed the March 14 camp's support of Salam's nomination, thereby guaranteeing him a parliamentary majority. More surprisingly, the March 8 Bloc also openly nominated Salam in binding parliamentary committee meetings. Ultimately, he received the backing of 124 out of 128 Deputies in Lebanon's parliament.

The March 8 Bloc's support for the March 14-aligned Salam reflects its desire to avoid an early confrontation with their counterparts in the March 14 camp. They regard Salam as a "moderate," as one who holds no enmity for Hezbollah. As a result, they supported his designation as the new prime minister and a figure who would give them the opportunity to reach a compromise on the formation of a cabinet. This also reflects the March 8 Bloc's desire to contain the security situation on the ground, and lighten confessional (Sunni-Shia) tension after four clerics from the Sunni establishment's Dar Al Fatwa were attacked on March 17, an incident that took place shortly before Miqati's resignation.

Despite the ease and speed with which the new prime minister was chosen, a number of future challenges lie in wait for the formation of a new government. These challenges are a result of the differences in how the government, as well as the parliament, are divided on the proposed Orthodox Gathering law. Salam begins his task of forming a new cabinet while steeped in the minutiae of Lebanon's tense domestic setting. He initially proposed a "government of national interest," a government that would be approved by a majority of the country's political parties whose sole task would be administering the parliamentary elections. In order to achieve this, and to avoid sectarian and political bargaining, Salam suggested a smaller government formed by political independents.

Hariri's Future Movement supports Salam's proposal, and Jumblatt is also willing to support his government provided that it receives the backing of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. The positions of the groups within the March 8 coalition, meanwhile, are varied: the FPM, for instance, opposes the idea of a non-political cabinet on the grounds that it violates the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1991. Hezbollah, the FPM's ally within the March 8 Bloc, is more accommodating of the proposal, as long as it ties in with the formation of a government and the agreement on an electoral law and a distribution of ministerial portfolios in proportion to the number of deputies controlled by each party/bloc. The latter would grant Hezbollah at least one-third of the seats within the cabinet, giving the group veto power over governmental decisions. While the Amal Movement does not link its approval of the government with the government, it does share Hezbollah's position on how ministerial portfolios should be divided. Given the reality described above, there are a number of possibilities for the formation of the new government.

An Electoral Compromise

The March 8 Bloc believes that they are in a strong position when it comes to the electoral law. Its members unanimously support the proposed Orthodox Gathering law, while the March 14 coalition is internally split on the issue. The Maronite Christian groups within the March 14 camp (the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces), who convened at the Maronite Patriarcahte in Bkerki on April 3, all agree that the 1960's electoral law, which is backed by the Future Movement and Walid Jumblatt's camp,  needs to change.[8] This might push these two parliamentary groups to strike a deal that paves the way for a new cabinet, led by Tamam Salam of the March 8 coalition, regardless of whether or not that government is made up of politicians. One distinct possibility is that reaching an agreement on the electoral law to preside over the next elections could destroy both of the options now being discussed: the prevailing law during the last parliamentary elections in 2009 and the Orthodox Gathering law. The end result might be a compromise "hybrid proposal," similar to the one proposed by the Amal Movement, that would combine features of the first past the post (FPTP or "winner takes all") and proportional representation systems. To be implemented, however, such a change would require the approval of regional power-brokers Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

A Majority Government

There are a number of obstacles that stand in the way of another majority-based government, such as the one formerly headed by Miqati's, including Jumblatt's condition that Hezbollah and the Amal Movement agree to the formation of the cabinet, and Saudi Arabia's[9] demand that Salam be open to cooperation with those two groups. Nonetheless, a number of differences in opinion also stand in the way of the formation of a consensus-based cabinet, particularly if Hezbollah continues to make the formation of a new cabinet contingent on agreement of a new electoral law. In the end, Salam may just have to resort to creating a government of technocrats approved by the president, and rely solely on the March 14 coalition, together with Jumblatt's group, for parliamentary backing. In such a way, a new government will have majority approval, and carry out its work regardless of whether the elections occur on time. However, the eventuality of a government based on a parliamentary majority's backing entails the prospect of a conflict between the March 8 and March 14 Blocs, and is highly unlikely. Jumblatt's position is unreliable because of his frequent vacillations and the way his positions are reliant on the balance of powers domestically, regionally, and globally, all of which makes this choice tenuous.

A Vacuum

Salam may fail to create a government, and in the end be compelled to apologize and withdraw from the stage, leaving Miqati at the head of a caretaker government. Given the limited constitutional role for such a caretaker government, and in the event that the present parliament's term is not extended, there is a risk of a legislative and executive vacuum in the event that the government remains unable to agree on a new electoral law. Such a situation may leave the door open to recurrent incidents similar to those of May 7, 2008 (when there were armed clashes between the supporters of opposing Lebanese political factions), or perhaps even scenes reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war. This is given added credence with the spillover from Syria into Lebanon, in the shape of sectarian confrontations. Such has already happened in the clashes between the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab Al Tabbana, majority Alawite and Sunni districts in Tripoli; it has also become apparent in the way the Syrian regime bombed the Lebanese town of Arsaal, and the way the Syrian opposition bombed Al Qasr in response to Hezbollah's military involvement in the rural region of Al Qusayr on the Syrian side the countries' border.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here

[1] On January 12, 2011, 10 ministers from Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement, who together constituted one-third of the government, resigned. Later, Minister Adnan Sayyed Hussein, who was selected by the president, followed. Thus, the government lost its two-thirds majority, which ultimately led to its demise. 

[2] Since 2005, political parties in Lebanon have fallen into one of two camps: the March 14 Bloc, which is dominated by the Future Movement and the family of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the March 8 Bloc, which is dominated by the Hezbollah.

[3] Lebanese security forces detained former minister and member of the Phalange Party Michel Samaha during August 2012. According to the accusations against him, Samaha acted on the orders of former Syrian state security chief to smuggle weapons into Lebanon in order to commission bombings of Christian areas, with the aim of creating sectarian strife.

[4] On a visit to Beirut on October 23, 2012, EU Foreign Policy Commissioner Catherine Ashton voiced official European Union support for stability, as well as the need to avoid a political vacuum in Lebanon.

[5] "A Storm of Criticism Greets Lebanese Minister's Statements on Syria" (Arabic), Al Sharq Al Awsat, March 8, 2013: http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12519&article=720104#.UXO_JrVTD0c.

[6] Tripoli is a predominantly Sunni city in the north of Lebanon.

[7] This was a decided outcome of the Arab Foreign Ministers Committee meeting on March 6, 2013.

[8] Notably, the Christian blocs in Lebanon's parliament agreed to postpone discussion of the Orthodox Gathering law, thereby allowing the opportunity for a consensus on an alternative electoral law to form.

[9] Saudi Arabia is a backer of the March 14 Bloc.