Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati recently succeeded in forming a new government dominated by the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance, thus ending a deadlock that left the divided country in a power vacuum for almost five months.
The thirty-member cabinet was a result of more than four months of tough bargaining, political wrangling and harsh talk in the media that involved the March 8 alliance, President Michel Sleimane and Najib Mikati, over who would get government portfolios.
Out of the thirty members, the Hizbullah coalition now holds eighteen seats, eight more than in the previous Hariri cabinet. But breaking with tradition, the new cabinet also includes five Shi’ite ministers instead of the normal six, while Sunnis received one extra seat for a total of seven portfolios. Shi’ite Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri ceded a Shi’ite cabinet seat at the last minute to help break the deadlock over the representation of the former Sunni opposition by Faysal Karameh, son of former Prime Minister Omar Karameh.
A breakdown of the cabinet lineup shows clearly that Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun emerged the biggest winner, with ten portfolios, followed by Mikati with six. President Sleimane has three ministers; Berri’s Amal movement has two ministers while Hizbullah retained two seats. One cabinet seat went to Ali Qanso, representing the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
No doubt this cabinet lineup dramatically underlines the unprecedented dominance of Hizbullah in Lebanon, giving its Syrian and Iranian patrons greater sway in the Middle East. Although it seemed at times during this five-month deliberation that Hizbullah was losing steam and paying the price of Lebanese labyrinthine political intricacies, the new cabinet illustrates Hizbullah’s decades-long transformation from a so-called resistance military body fighting Western and Israeli presence in Lebanon, to becoming Lebanon’s most powerful military and political power.
The reality that confronts Lebanon today raises hidden fears of Shi’ite domination and the transformation of Lebanon into a radical factor in the Middle East, aligned with Syria and Iran. That explains why Mikati sought in an interview with AFP to reassure the world and the Lebanese that “the fact that Hizbullah and its allies have 18 seats in the 30-member cabinet does not mean that the country will join the radical camp in terms of its relations with the international community.” Mikati was also quick to reiterate that his government will respect Lebanon’s international commitments, a reference to the International Tribunal investigation over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose conclusions might point at some Syrian-backed Hizbullah operatives who were involved in the assassination plot.
Nevertheless, it is crystal clear to all observers that the new government is almost entirely pro-Syrian. Syrian President Bashar Assad, breaking from his existential domestic crisis, twice called Lebanese President Sleimane and Speaker Berri to congratulate them on the formation of the new government.
Indeed, this government lineup represents a glorious comeback for Syria to the Lebanese scene after having had to shamefully withdraw its troops following the mass demonstrations in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination.
As for Iran, the transformation of Hizbullah into a dominant factor in Lebanon strengthens its influence in the region and allows Teheran to continue in its effort to transform Lebanon as a whole into its confrontation line with Israel. Understandably, Iran did not delay in congratulating Prime Minister Najib Mikati. The official Iranian news agency reported: “In a telephone conversation, First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi congratulated Mikati and the Lebanese people on the formation of the new government….The Islamic Republic of Iran reiterates its desire to remain a partner to Lebanon, and is ready to implement the agreements signed between the two countries” to strengthen bilateral ties.
The ascendancy of Hizbullah is a setback for the United States which has provided Lebanon with $720 million in military aid since 2006 and tried in vain to move the country firmly into the Western sphere of influence and to end Iranian and Syrian influence. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “We’ll judge it by its actions….What’s important in our mind is that the new Lebanese government abides by the Lebanese Constitution, that it renounces violence, including efforts to exact retribution against former government officials, and lives up to its international obligations.”
Israel should be concerned with the gradual transformation of Lebanon into a front with Iran and it should consider the implications of such a change on its strategic freedom of maneuver in the region. Iranian involvement and presence in the area has to be considered as a strategic shift with dire consequences for Israel.
However, it should not be forgotten that we are dealing with Lebanon, whose politics are always fractious, in part because of the sectarian makeup of the distribution of power in the government. Talal Arslane, a politician from the small Druze community, resigned a few hours after he heard he had been nominated to the post of state minister without portfolio instead of receiving the defense portfolio.
Moreover, the government faces major challenges, including the worsening economic crisis, public debt estimated at more than $52 billion, and sharp political divisions over the explosive issues of Hizbullah’s weapons and the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri.
Najib Mikati’s task is going to be very tedious as he will have to navigate the quicksand of Lebanon, which has swallowed up foreign invaders as well as domestic leaders who did not know how to reconcile the complexities of the Lebanese puzzle.
One thing is certain: Lebanon has made a dramatic radical step. Time will show if this trend will persist or will be beaten by the forces of opposition who look at this government as a government of confrontation and isolation.