Playing The Sectarian Card

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“We should reduce the difficulties in forming a new Cabinet such as the agreement to postpone discussion on the government’s policy statement rather than adding more obstacles such as the rotation of ministerial portfolios. […] The principle of rotating ministerial portfolios is a sound policy if it is adopted by consensus and consultations (and) at the beginning of a new Parliament or presidential term. […] It is strategic for Lebanon and Christians because it entails international relations stolen from the Christians 25 years ago. It also includes a balanced development that was absent from Christian [areas] for 25 years.  […] Therefore, it is a primary ministry par excellence and should not be a target of exclusion and it is the right of this sect [Christians] to be trusted with Lebanon’s oil for an interim period. […] Is it acceptable to allocate the Interior Ministry to a sect in order to reassure it, allocate the Finance ministry to a specific sect to compensate for it or allocate the Defense ministry to [a party] to protect a grant for the Army?”

In case you didn’t guess, that’s Gebran Bassil talking about the energy ministry two weeks ago. Since this is apparently the primary problem preventing the government formation (for the moment), I thought it would be nice if I tackled the issue.

The Offer

According to media reports, Michel Aoun’s bloc was offered 4 ministers in the government (apparently two for the FPM, one for the Tachnag and another for the Marada) in exchange for the ministries – especially the energy ministry – held by Aounists for the past few years. The FPM would be getting one of the four sovereign portfolios – the foreign ministry – along with the ministry of education. Now the ministry of education might seem as a very minor portfolio, but for the first time since ages, a Christian political party would be handling the education portfolio. There were always fears that the history book might be changed in case a Christian party held the post – in the FPM circles you always hear how the Future Movement would never give it to the Lebanese Forces or the Kataeb – so basically this can be seen as some kind of concession by the Future Movement. Michel Aoun is also being offered one of the most important posts in the cabinet. The ministry of Foreign affairs is a quadruple offer: M8 gets to keep the post it held for the few past years, a Christian gets to be foreign minister for the first time since 2004 and the second time since 1998, a Christian party would be holding the ministry for the first time since the civil war, and most importantly, Michel Aoun would be given a sovereign portfolio for the first time in the history of the all-embracing cabinets (he never had any of the Finance, Interior, Defense or Foreign ministries in any of the previous unity cabinets).

But why do the concessions seem so big, and why is the FPM refusing the offer?

The Diversion

To quote Gebran Bassil:

We should reduce the difficulties in forming a new Cabinet such as the agreement to postpone discussion on the government’s policy statement rather than adding more obstacles such as the rotation of ministerial portfolios.

In other words, Gebran Bassil is basically offering – if one reads between the lines – some sort of compromise including concessions from both M8 and M14 regarding the two remaining obstacles: The policy statement and the ministerial rotation. M8 can use the energy ministry issue in order to get what it wants. A deal would be giving up the ministry in exchange for a more suiting ministerial declaration, or vice versa.

The Strategic Importance Of The Energy Ministry

The energy ministry for the FPM is of a very strategic importance. First, it’s a ministry that has been held by the FPM for the past 5 years. All the achievements of the Aounist ministers, including the Oil plan – among other things –  would go with the wind . Let me quote Bassil again:

“The principle of rotating ministerial portfolios is a sound policy if it is adopted by consensus and consultations (and) at the beginning of a new Parliament or presidential term.”

Also in other words: What matters the most is that the ministry stays under FPM control before the November elections. The moment another minister X replaces Bassil, it would seem on the eve of the parliamentary elections that it was X – not Bassil – that was responsible for everything that previously happened. Thus it would be harder for the Aounists to base their campaign on the energy ministry achievements since what people remember the most after a while are the corruption accusations, not the achievements .

Second, the amount of income the ministry will generate soon (because of the gas fields on the shore) is too damn high. Controlling a ministry that provides the biggest income is in the advantage of FPM, and allows him to use the ministry in order to strike better deals with M14 and increase the number of projects – especially that the elections are very near.

The third reason of keeping the energy ministry under Aounist control is because M8 makes sure that the Oil project is alive and kicking, and hence Hezbollah ensures that the Lebanese government would be entering an oil dispute with Israel regarding the maritime region bordering Israel. Hezbollah will gain a legitimacy boost by declaring that he is here to protect Lebanon’s resources.

It’s not only about the ministry

What is really shocking in Gebran Bassil’s speech is the amount of sectarianism used in order to keep the energy ministry.

“It is strategic for Lebanon and Christians because it entails international relations stolen from the Christians 25 years ago. It also includes a balanced development that was absent from Christian [areas] for 25 years.  […] Therefore, it is a primary ministry par excellence and should not be a target of exclusion and it is the right of this sect [Christians] to be trusted with Lebanon’s oil for an interim period.”

There’s a reason for all that. Michel Aoun’s presence in the government is vital for its creation. When the Lebanese Forces decided to boycott the all-embracing cabinet, the FPM suddenly became the only major Christian party represented in it. Gebran Bassil’s sectarian speech is a reminder to all the cabinet factions that the FPM’s Christian identity is crucial for the government formation. If the Aounist ministers resign because the portfolios aren’t good enough for the FPM, the only Christian political parties remaining in the government would be the Kataeb, the Tachnag, and the Marada. And since the Marada and Tachnag are pro-aounist and are members of the FPM’s change and reform parliamentary bloc , there’s a very big possibility that they would resign too. That leaves the Kataeb alone in the government. I seriously doubt that the Kataeb would take the responsibility of being the only Christian party in the government (and get looked upon by the Christian population with distrust 4 months before the elections) , and there’s an enormous chance that their ministers would resign for lack of Christian representation. Hezbollah, due to fears of a possible alternative FM-FPM alliance that is starting to appear, are likely to exit the government as a sign of solidarity with Aoun.

The Future Movement knew what they were doing when they gave up the Finance ministry to Berri: The Finance minister – it is said – was supposed to be a Shia according to the Taif agreement (since he signs all the decrees along with the president and PM and hence has some kind of veto power). By giving the Finance ministry to a minister loyal to Nabih Berri, the FM made it hard for the speaker to withdraw his ministers from the government in solidarity with Aoun. We still don’t know if the maneuver worked or not, but it surely made Berri think again.

We end up with an all-embracing government that lacks Christian representation and Hezbollah participation. Among the bad scenarios ahead for M14:

1) The government will somehow see light – despite the resignations, but due to the lack of Christian representation, it becomes ethically impossible for the government to assume the powers of the (Christian) president when Sleiman exits in May. This maneuver forces all political factions to elect a president hailing from a Christian political party or face a constitutional crisis. Since the Muslim factions of M8 and M14 would have united the FPM and the LF in the opposition, it becomes harder for the political class to extend the terms of the current president because it would bring the LF and FPM even closer to one another and lead to massive Christian discontent.

2) The government collapses just after its formation. New parliamentary consultations lead to events similar to the ones leading to Mikati’s cabinet, with Safadi – Michel Aoun’s  favori – being nominated to the post of Prime Minister.

One thing is sure though : If you think Michel Aoun is negotiating from a weak spot, don’t.

Reminder: We still don’t have a government.

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