• Jean AbiNader

Post-election Maneuvering Continues to Slow Government Formation, Syrian Refugees Key Policy Issue

The Eid-el-Fitr is upon us and Speaker Berri’s hope that the new government will be announced around this time may not be met. The first steps have been taken by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who is responsible for forming the coalition cabinet, a task usually takes months and involves many trade-offs among competing political entities. Berri said that “Expediting the formation is necessary and urgent. It is a duty for everyone to face the enormous challenges facing the country and the growing crises in it, especially the economic situation which cannot be delayed, procrastinated or slowed. It requires exceptional approaches and responsible solutions.”

Unsaid is that whatever differences the parties may have about many issues, there is a common resolve to deal with the Syrian refugees sooner rather than later. Even Hezbollah made it a campaign promise to quickly resolve the refugee crisis, sharing a common goal with Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) to get them out despite objections from the UNHCR concerning the lack of assurances of the safety of those who choose to return home. However, without international agreement and funding, there is little chance that any but incremental moves will be made in the near future.

Despite the tensions between the UNHCR and acting Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil on sending refugees back without guarantees, they can only agree to disagree at this point. The refugee issue is difficult for Hezbollah as its action are in some cases directly responsible for evacuations by Syrian civilians from Syrian war zones to Lebanon. It is also limited in making good on its other promise, to improve governance in Lebanon and fight corruption when many of its partners will be loath to support either move if it threatens their interests, read constituents.

Despite Hariri moving quickly to propose the distribution of ministries, he is being constrained by President Aoun’s efforts to add another portfolio to his cache while limiting, through FPM’s leader Bassil, the inroads of the Lebanese Forces (LF), which now has 15 seats in Parliament. Early indications are that Bassil and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah have agreed to the distribution of the sovereign portfolios as currently allocated, which would in practice leave the LF out of any significant role. Hezbollah is looking to expand its allotment by gaining a ministry with a large potential for jobs: energy, health, public works, or education.

Aoun’s position is problematic since the practice has been to allocate one sovereign portfolio to the president as his “share” of the cabinet. He is asking for a second portfolio as head of the FPM, which has drawn opposition as his son-in-law and acting head of the party is Gebran Bassil, who will have the Foreign Ministry portfolio again, thus giving FPM great influence and sidelining it competitor, the LF.

Aoun listed his priorities in a meeting with the head of the EU Mission in Lebanon, Christina Lassen. “The phase that will follow the formation of a new government will be strictly devoted to addressing the economic and social conditions in Lebanon, with focus on maintaining security stability and following up on the return of Syrian refugees to their country,” Aoun told Lassen.

It was vital that President Aoun talked about reforms as the top item on the agenda along with “completing the implementation of development projects, particularly with regard to securing additional electrical supply and implementing water dam and transport network projects.” All of these were the subject of the donors conferences held this spring.

In response, Ambassador Lassen also discussed with the President the urgency of anti-corruption efforts as a priority for the government and a prerequisite for increased investments and economic growth.

As mentioned, the Syrian refugees are a significant issue although it is clear that nothing can be done in the short term to deal with the more than one million refugees in Lebanon. “According to Human Rights Watch, around 74% of Syrian refugees aged 15 and above lack legal status, which further restricts their access to work, education, and health care. With the economic situation in Lebanon deteriorating and the Syrian war winding down, this issue is taking center stage in Beirut and will no doubt top the priorities facing the next Lebanese government,” according to a recent article by Joseph Macaron.

The current ad hoc process for return has now been centralized under the Director General of Lebanese General Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim who has the president’s remit to discuss the issue with the Syrian regime, despite PM Hariri’s reluctance to have any direct talks with the Assad government. Currently, those who wish to return make a formal request to the security services who then vet the request with its Syrian counterparts. It is reported that there are thousands of pending requests, posing a logistical challenge for the Syrian regime to both process the requests and provide transport for returning refugees.

While Lebanon may have little to celebrate this Eid, at least there is little violence to damage the festivities and there is some hope that warring politicians will set aside, at least temporarily, their reluctance to view the ministerial negotiations as a zero-sum exercise.

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