In the Lebanese rendition of hide and seek, no one hides, especially when it comes to publicly declaiming how elections victories mandate rewards, specifically government ministries. The game has been joined, with serious consequences. Not all the players are equal, most arguing about how to make the most of finishing out of first or even second place. Since the total number of seats are allocated equally among Christians and Muslims, a rare form of communal profit-sharing takes place as both must bargain with their counterparts as well as across the aisle. Coalitions and alliances are forged to maximize the party’s ability to provide services to its constituents as well as influence national policies and politics.
And the process is not without external pressures from regional actors and the Big Powers. As an article in Al-Monitor noted, Hezbollah, with its aggregate of 70 seats, a majority in the 128-seat Parliament, must be careful that it is not reckless in its demands. “Hezbollah’s role will come under even greater scrutiny, not only as a result of US sanctions, but also the lag in international donor funds, which are conditioned on reforms that will depend, in good part, on the role and policies of Hezbollah, backed by Iran.”
This message was echoed by the designated Prime Minister Saad Hariri following consultative meetings last week. He exclaimed that all parties want the process to go smoothly and quickly, which will be an achievement given that the holy fasting season of Ramadan doesn’t end for another two weeks followed by several days of celebration. Hariri said that “All parties agreed that economic risks at home and growing dangers in the region meant a national unity government must be formed as quickly as possible.” Newly re-elected Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri also noted that “Nobody has an interest in delaying the birth of the government or putting complications in its way.”
Yet there are many challenges ahead. According to Reuters, Lebanon’s economic woes and unsustainable debt levels are seen as top priorities for the next government. So too is the Syrian refugee crisis for a country where one in four people is now a Syrian refugee. As of now, there are no agreed policies going forward on either issue.
The Christian Lebanese Forces party, led by Samir Geagea, is demanding a role equal to its main Christian rival, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) even though it has only 15 seats to FPM’s 29. Hezbollah, with 70 seats in its alliance, wants at least one ministry that controls a large bloc of jobs and services. It will have three instead of two ministries this time.
The FPM is seeking to add either the Finance Ministry or Interior Ministry to its portfolio as it has a working alliance with Hezbollah and believes it deserves either although Speaker Berri is insisting that the Finance Ministry remain in his camp, a position supported by Hezbollah. The Druze are also divided with Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party making a claim to all three Druze ministerial slots being negotiated, leaving out a rival Druze party that asking for at least one ministry.
In an unanticipated though not surprising statement, Secretary of State Pompeo called for a review of US security assistance to Lebanon at a recent House hearing. Reflecting a concern that Hezbollah has too much influence with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), he stated that he wants to make sure that the assistance is being used for its intended purposes. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif, who has long supported US-Lebanon ties explained, “We have worked closely with the Lebanese Armed Forces over the years to try to strengthen that institution because basically you have the formulation of a terrorist state [Hezbollah] within a state. So we want to make certain that there is distance between the Lebanese Armed Forces and the capability of the terrorist network to get their hands on any material. And that is what I believe [Pompeo’s] referring to.”
As the article in Al-Monitor pointed out, “Despite calling for a review, Pompeo still reaffirmed, in his testimony today, US support for the Lebanese Armed Forces to help us achieve the security element of our efforts.” And although he expressed concern about Hezbollah’s strength in the Lebanese government, he conceded that “Ultimately it’s our assessment at this point that the overall balance of power won’t be materially changed’ by this month’s elections.”
Just another critical challenge for the incoming Lebanese government, the LAF, and those who support Lebanon-US relations.
UN Special Coordinator speaks up for Lebanon in Iran. According to Naharnet, The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Pernille Dahler Kardel said that staging the parliamentary elections was a “great accomplishment,” and stressed the need to “keep the specter of war away from Lebanon.” She was meeting in Iran with Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif and Parliament's General Director for International Affairs Hussein Amir-Abdollahian.
She said, “Achieving economic development in Lebanon and protecting Syrian refugees is one of our priorities," hoping to reach a "comprehensive agreement in a political framework on these issues. The developments in the region are interrelated. Countries of the region should seek to remove the specter of war from Lebanon and not allow it to be involved in regional crises.” In response, Foreign Minister Zarif said Iran “aspires and wants to promote stability and security in Lebanon," adding that “the Lebanese people's vote and their will must be respected.”
These US and Iran concerns remind us of an article published immediately following the elections in which Bilal Saad of the Middle East Institute argued that backing down from support Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s increased power in the Parliament is clearly not in US interests. “The United States is competing fiercely with Iran for influence over Lebanon’s political identity and strategic orientation. Lebanon matters to the United States and the world because it is a rather unique place in the Middle East: a free, tolerant, and pluralistic society where Muslims and Christians live in peace…Washington’s ultimate objective in Lebanon should be to help the country tackle its various domestic challenges on its own and fend off unwanted external interference. This, of course, is a long-term project that requires patience.” He goes on to point out how the LAF has developed its capabilities over the last 10 years, largely as a result of US security assistance.