An Analysis of Lebanon's New Government
On January 31, 2019, after 252 days of deliberation, Lebanon successfully formed a government. The new “unity cabinet” consists of thirty ministers, with representatives of all of Lebanon’s major political parties filling seats within it. While many of the faces are the same, the relationships between many of the parties have changed. The following is a background on Lebanese politics up to the current moment, and an analysis of the new pressures and opportunities created by the most recent election.
Background and “Pre-2005 Model” of Lebanese Politics
Modern Lebanese politics began in 1990, at the end of the country’s 15-year civil war. Two major events took place during this period. The first was an agreement signed in the Saudi Arabian city of Ta’if by Lebanese parliamentarians. The Ta’if Accord put into place a set of political reforms that acted as the basis of the post-war political system. The second was the 1990 invasion of East Beirut by the Syrian Army, which put an end to the conflict. The end of the civil war created a new political structure. Lebanese political technocrats focused on reconstruction, in particular the new Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, were the façade of this new structure. Its foundations, however, were Syrian military and intelligence figures, backed up by a permanent Syrian military presence in the country. The power dynamic of this relationship was made apparent by the frequent trips of Lebanese politicians to Damascus, as consulting with the Syrian regime was required for any major political decisions. This division of affairs, with Lebanese political figures in the foreground and the Syrian military in the background held until 2005, when the system fell apart.
On February 14, 2005, a massive explosion in downtown Beirut killed Rafiq Hariri. While the party responsible for the assassination is still officially unclear, popular belief and common sense dictate that the Syrian regime was involved. The assassination began a chain of events that ended in late April 2005, with the total withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanese soil. In between those two events, two protests took place that acted as the foundations for a new political order in Lebanon. The first, on March 8th, saw Hezbollah and its political allies rallying in support of Syria and its presence in the country. The parties present at that protest were the backbone of the pro-Syrian “March 8th” political bloc. The other, on March 14th, protested Syrian presence in the country, as well as the political machinations that it had fomented there for decades. The March 14th protest was one of the largest in the country’s history, and it was responsible for catalyzing the Syrian withdrawal. It also acted as a preview to the makeup of the anti-Syrian “March 14th” political bloc.
This new political system persisted through the 2006 war between Israel and March 8th member Hezbollah. They also survived the armed clashes between the two blocs in 2007-2008. It began to disintegrate with the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. March 8th member Hezbollah was rumored to be supporting the Syrian government in suppressing protests beginning in 2011, and began its official involvement during the battle of Qusayr in the summer of 2013. On the other side of the spectrum, officials in the March 14th-affiliated Future Movement were implicated in a Syrian Opposition operations room based in Istanbul, run in coordination with Saudi intelligence. With the direction of the Syrian crisis unclear, politics in Lebanon froze. The country failed to hold elections scheduled for 2013, and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman left his post in 2014 without a replacement.
The Path to Government Formation
The foundations of Lebanon’s contemporary political order began in 2016 with the political dealing that took place to nominate a new president. It began when the leader of the March 14th-affiliated Future Movement Saad Hariri failed to support his political ally Samir Geagea, and instead threw his support behind the candidacy of Suleiman Frangieh. Geagea is a former militia leader who had been jailed by the Syrian regime in the aftermath of the war, who was released only after the Syrian pullout. In contrast, Frangieh is a second-tier Christian politician whose family has had close ties to the Assad family for decades. This move was matched with the political alliance made between Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun. Both men had been opponents and rivals during the country’s civil war. But in the summer of 2016, the two signed the Maarab agreement, which among other things had Geagea backing Aoun for the presidency. These two moves, in which pragmatism triumphed over political loyalty, were the first sign that a breakup of the post-2005 was imminent. They also brought Michel Aoun to the presidency, and paved the way for the first parliamentary elections in the country since 2009.
After a year and a half political wrangling, elections were finally held in May of 2018. As this recent report by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies details, during the election Lebanese political parties formed alliances with rivals and ran against partners, depending on the electoral district. They did this in contrast with the former practice of attempting to maximize benefits for their parliamentary blocs, even at the expense of their own seats in parliament. This myopic behavior by political parties was one of the factors that delayed the post-election formation of the Lebanese parliamentary cabinet for 9 months, until finally, on January 31st, the formation of a new government was announced.
What comes next?
The last few years have made clear that the old order of Lebanese politics is no longer relevant. It is still not necessarily clear, however, what the new order will be. Pre-2005, Lebanese politics was based around fealty to Damascus, and many of the Syrian regime’s Lebanese allies now hold important positions in the government. But Syria has been shattered by its ongoing Civil War, and is incapable of force projection within its own borders, let alone outside of them. It is so broken, in fact, that the international community is likely to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the near future on its reconstruction, and Lebanon is perfectly placed to make money from that reconstruction process. The current state of affairs seems to be acquiescence to the fact that Damascus is still over the mountains, Bashar al-Assad is still the President, and that his allies still have an integral role in the Lebanese political system. In return, Lebanon remains stable, and there is an opportunity for everybody to turn a profit when the Syria reconstruction process begins. How this will shape the country’s political alliances and rivalries is still unclear.
While this situation might be amenable to the interests of almost all Lebanese parties, it is not acceptable to key foreign actors in Lebanese politics. Even before the elections, frustration with Saad Hariri's willingness to work with Hezbollah and its regional backer Iran was the primary motivation behind the bizarre involuntary detention of Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia in November 2017. Currently, the continued normalization of Hezbollah as a Lebanese political actor is the cause of recent threats by the United States to stop funding the Lebanese Armed Forces. This issue has also incensed the Israelis, who have had a decades-long conflict with Hezbollah, and who are increasingly concerned with the organization's growth since the beginning of its involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
In final analysis, It is still unclear how the Lebanon’s elections and the recent cabinet formation will change the dynamics between the actors and parties involved in the country’s political process. Furthermore, it is very unclear how foreign actors in Lebanese politics will respond. What is clear, however, is that Lebanon’s new government is likely a net positive for the country. As a future piece will detail, the country faces problems on a variety of fronts that require a functioning government in order to be dealt with.
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