Lebanon’s new Cabinet was announced Sunday after major political powers managed to thaw obstacles hindering the formation process.
Hariri described his Cabinet as a national consensus government, underlining that it will “exert efforts during its short-term, which will not exceed few months. Its first mission will be to reach with the Parliament a new electoral law that abides by proportional representation and the right representation.”
Throwback 50 days
The date is October 31st, 2016. Michel Aoun is elected – against all odds – President of the Lebanese Republic after more than two years of a presidential vacancy. A new era begins in Lebanese politics: Michel Aoun, who had spent the majority of the post-Syrian era criticizing the policies of the Future Movement, named Saad Hariri, the leader of the FM, as his Prime Minister after the designated PM’s endorsement of Aoun finally led to the end of the presidential deadlock and the election of the FPM leader as President. Meanwhile, in what was formerly (?) known as the March 8 alliance, not everyone was excited to see Aoun in Baabda. Hariri’s maneuver of endorsing Aoun without a green light coming from speaker Berri had succeeded: Amal, Berri’s party, led the opposition to Michel Aoun’s election in parliament, and even Frangieh, who was considered for a full decade to be Michel Aoun’s second in command among the Christian leaders of the March 8’s Change and Reform Bloc, refused to vote for Aoun after the FPM leader had refused to end the presidential vacancy by endorsing Frangieh earlier this year.
The result was the election of Aoun as President in the most humiliating conditions ever: Second to him in the ballots’ results was Myriam Klink, and not only was he elected by absolute majority, the second round was also repeated two times because there was an extra ballot casted twice (128 votes counted instead of 127).
That meant that a humiliated President Aoun was going to start his mandate without the support of the two-thirds of a parliament (elected 8 years ago) behind him, while Hariri, as Prime Minister, was expected to gather as Prime Minister designate the votes of the March 14 coalition parties, the PSP, the Marada (since he almost got Frangieh to Baabda in 2015), Amal, and the FPM. Hariri’s maneuver of making Hezbollah choose between upsetting Aoun and angering Berri (by endorsing Aoun) in October also meant – in a way or another – that he had unified all the mainstream parties behind him in the process.
Hezbollah had brought Michel Aoun into Baabda, but it wouldn’t have been a “pure victory” if Hariri would have been named by the entire parliament as Prime Minister while Aoun couldn’t gather the two-thirds of the parliament’s votes even after more than two years of boycotting. So Hezbollah decided to partially ruin the Future Movement’s party and refused to vote for Hariri as Prime Minister although almost all of Hezbollah’s allies within March 8 named Hariri with enthusiasm, happiness and joy (the joy of participating in a cabinet before expected parliamentary elections :$ ). The result was Hariri being nominated for the premiership by 112 out of Lebanon’s 127 representatives on the 3rd of November 2016, 4 days after the election of Aoun as President.
The (not so) long wait
Historically speaking, Lebanese politicians never did anything relevant in December. So when Hariri was named Prime Minister, Lebanon’s Zuamas were expected to stall the process of government formation till 2017: After all, Salam’s cabinet formation took 11 months. While postponing the cabinet formation would have seemed natural in the world of Lebanese politics, it would have sent a wrong message to the people: That the President and the Prime Minister do not want elections. Regardless if the presidency deal included a secret agreement to head to elections under the 2008 law or postpone elections, stalling with the government formation could make the President and the Prime Minister look as culprits should a parliamentary extension happen or the electoral law remain the same: The parliament can not legislate without a cabinet in a power in order to pass a new electoral law, and a caretaker cabinet has never in Lebanon’s modern history overseen parliamentary elections.
The failure to form a cabinet would have thrown all the blame of a possible parliamentary extension or an election under the 2008 law (known as the 1960 law) on the President and the Prime Minister (since they are the only two persons in the entire republic who sign the government formation decree). Since the Prime Minister and the President are the leaders of the two biggest blocs in parliament and are facing new rivalries (The tide is turning for Hariri in the North as Fatfat went to the binding consultations all by himself and Rifi is planning to take Tripoli’s 8 seats in the next elections), it would seem wise to show at least early positive signs regarding their rule and this summer’s potential parliamentary elections. Now, and with the relatively early formation of the government, all of Lebanon’s MPs will equally share the blame of possible electoral failure 😀 .
The fight over the junior Christian partner
I could overthink every move orchestrated by Lebanese politicians for them to get an extra minister in this cabinet, but it would be irrelevant. There was however, one major battle in the cabinet worth mentioning, and it was about the size of the Lebanese Forces and the Marada’s shares and the portfolios they would get.
(1) The LF-FPM-FM rapprochement, as well as (2) the FPM-Hezbollah alliance, and (3) bypassing the speaker’s opinion in electing Aoun were too much for Amal to handle. There was an isolation in the making for Berri, and the speaker had to thwart the new trio (FPM, FM, LF) from bonding more and possibly dragging Hezbollah into a quadripartite alliance excluding Amal. So Berri used the Frangieh card: inspired by the new *friendship* between the FM and the Marada, Berri empowered Frangieh in his quest to seek an important portfolio in the government, which was kind of illogical since Frangieh had three MPs out of 127 in the parliament, and giving the Marada one of the six important ministries would create disequilibrium in the government, especially that Geagea had asked for a key portfolio in the cabinet and that his request was denied (Hezbollah refused to give the Defense ministry to the LF and Amal wouldn’t give up the Finance ministry). That meant Geagea would have to get more ministries outside the key/sovereign portfolios, since it was probably out of the question for the FPM to give up Gebran Bassil’s foreign ministry and the fourth key minister (interior) had to be a Sunni (traditionally, Christians and Muslims split the different kinds of portfolios equally).
That meant that Frangieh and Geagea were *preying* on the same “important” portfolio territory. There are 6 important ministries, and only 3 of those would be given to Christians (half). The LF wanted at least one and hopefully two of them (since they did not get any key ministry) , The FPM wanted one ministry for the President and hopefully another for the FPM’s bloc, while the Marada wanted their only minister in the cabinet to have an important portfolio in order to save face, especially since Frangieh had been humiliated with the sudden election of Aoun and the latest events of the past year.
In other words, three Christian parties were fighting for five important seats whereas only three seats of that category could be allocated to Christians. The FPM were probably planning to give the LF two of the three ministries as a way of saying sorry for not being able to give them a key ministry (there was apparently a deal – dating to Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun in January 2016 – between the LF and the FPM to split everything in the cabinet). But that would mean the Marada wouldn’t get a share in “the important portfolios category”, as the FPM was supposed to take the third Christian important portfolio (as part of its direct share, or President Aoun’s one). The Frangieh-LF fight over the third important Christian portfolio was in fact the consequence of The FPM-Amal rivalry. The FPM wanted the LF to have the portfolio, whereas Berri wanted it for Frangieh: Giving only 1 portfolios out of the 5 major Christian portfolios (the 2 sovereign ones and the 3 important ones) to the LF would create problems between the LF and the FPM on the long run, as the two parties would not have been treated equally, especially that a relatively minor politician as Frangieh would eventually get a share as important as Lebanon’s second biggest party (the Lebanese Forces).
The speaker eventually managed to give Frangieh an important ministry out of his share in the cabinet (the transport and public works ministry), and the LF also only got one important portfolio (health ministry), but the FPM made sure that the LF had 4 portfolios (although they are split among 3 ministers since Ghassan Hasbani is both Deputy Prime Minister and health minister ) as well as keeping Michel Pharaon (who is close to both the LF and the FPM but has been historically part of March 14) in the cabinet.
In the end, giving Frangieh 1 important portfolio meant that the LF should be given a bigger share, and giving the FPM and the LF 4,5 portfolios each – in case you wondered, the o,5 is Michel Pharaon – meant that it was getting too crowded for everyone else to fit in a 24 ministers-government, especially that the President was also supposed to get his share of ministers and that Berri would have to get an extra share of ministers from the “secondary ministries” in order to compensate the important ministry he gave up to Frangieh. That led in the end to a 30 ministers-cabinet (with 6 ministers of state added in order to make it easier to split the pie)
It is important to note how Berri is playing the long-term game here, giving up the Shiite portfolio in the “important category” and handing it to Frangieh in order to empower a third Christian voice in a cabinet where Christian portfolios are now dominated by the LF and the FPM. In the previous governments, Berri could always count on the ministers of the former President, on the LF ministers or on the Kataeb ones to keep the FPM’s monopoly on the Christian side of the cabinet in check. But this time, the President is Aoun, the LF are the FPM’s main backers, and the Kataeb are outside the government. Frangieh is Berri’s last weapon to annoy Aoun. And in this cabinet, he gave that weapon teeth: Fenianos, the Marada minister, will head the ministry of public works, literally the most important ministry before parliamentary elections.
The final lineup
This final lineup was announced by the secretary-general of the council of ministers on the 18th of December after more than a month of negotiations:
– Yaaqoub Sarraf (Defense Minister, President’s share, Greek Orthodox)
– Salim Jreissati (Justice Minister, President’s share, Greek Catholic)
– Pierre Raffoul (State Minister for Presidency Affairs, President’s share, Maronite)
– Nicolas Tueni (State Minister for Combating Corruption, President’s share, Greek Orthodox)
– Gebran Bassil (Foreign Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Maronite)
– Cesar Abi Khalil (Energy and Water Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Maronite)
– Tarek Khatib (Environment Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Sunni)
– Raed Khoury (Economy Minister, Free Patriotic Movement, Greek Orthodox)
– Ouadis Kedenian (Tourism Minister, Tachnag, Armenian Orthodox)
– Michel Pharaon (State Minister for Planning Affairs, Independent – 1/2 FPM – 1/2 LF, Greek Orthodox)
– Ghassan Hasbani (Deputy PM and Health Minister, Lebanese Forces, Greek Orthodox)
– Melhem Riachi (Information Minister, Lebanese Forces, Greek Catholic)
– Pierre Bou Assi (Social Affairs Minister, Lebanese Forces, Maronite)
– Youssef Finianos (Public Works and Transport Minister, Marada Movement, Maronite)
– Marwan Hamadeh (Education Minister, Progressive Socialist Party, Druze)
– Ayman Shqeir (State Minister for Human Rights, PSP, Druze)
– Talal Arslan (Minister of the Displaced, Progressive Socialist Party, Druze)
– Ghazi Zaiter (Agriculture Minister, Amal Movement, Shia)
– Ali Hassan Khalil (Finance Minister, Amal Movement, Shia)
– Enaya Ezzeddine (State Minister for Administrative Development, Amal, Shia)
– Mohammed Fneish (Sport and Youth Minister, Hizbullah, Shia)
– Hussein al-Hajj Hassan (Industry Minister, Hizbullah, Shia)
– Ali Kanso (State Minister for Parliament Affairs, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Shia)
– Saad Hariri (Prime Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)
– Nohad Machnouk (Interior Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)
– Mohammed Kabbara (Labor Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)
– Jamal al-Jarrah (Telecommunications Minister, Future Movement, Sunni)
– Mouin Merehbi (State Minister for Refugee Affairs, Future Movement, Sunni)
– Jean Oghassabian (State Minister for Women’s Affairs, Future Movement, Armenian Orthodox)
– Ghattas Khoury (Culture Minister, Future Movement, Maronite)
(Note: I allocated the president’s share and the FPM’s share according to the FPM’s media outlet, tayyar.org ,since many of the ministers part of the president’s share are also close to the FPM, making the separation of the two categories of ministers confusing)
Before we start discussing the names and the portfolios, it’s important to understand how politicians “value” the cabinet’s portfolios
Lebanese politicians separate the cabinet portfolios by importance:
- The 2 top ministries: The Prime Minister (FM) and the Deputy Prime Minister (LF)
- The key ( = sovereign) 4 ministries (الوزارات السيادية): The defense (President), interior (FM), finance (Amal), and foreign affairs (FPM) ministries.
- Then there are the 6 important ones (but that aren’t as important as the first ones) – known in the mainstream media as الوزارات الاساسية – because they traditionally get a lot of funding: The justice (President), telecom (FM), education (PSP), energy (FPM), health (LF) , and transport (Marada) ministries.
- Then there’s 12 secondary ministries : Economy (FPM) , environment (FPM), social affairs (LF), information (LF), displaced (LDP), tourism (Tachnag), industry (Hezbollah), sports (Hezbollah), agriculture (Amal), administrative reform (Amal), labor (FM), culture (FM).
- Usually, when we’re talking about 30 ministers-cabinets, 6 state ministers are added to the lot (they aren’t in charge of any portfolio but have each one vote in the cabinet). In our case, and since the Lebanese political establishment found it impossible to split the slices of the cabinet cake with less than 30 ministers available and wanted to avoid the negative connotation that comes with the appointment of ministers of state (who basically do nothing and get paid), it tried to send a good vibe about the new era in Lebanese politics and gave the 6 ministers of state “cool” names: Presidency affairs minister (President), combating corruption minister (President), refugee affairs minister (FM), women’s affairs minister (FM), parliament affairs minister (SSNP), Human rights minister (PSP), and the planning affairs minister (Pharaon = FPM + LF).It’s a smooth maneuver from the establishment, except the entire idea of adding those 6 ministers to facilitate the splitting of the cabinet cake beats the purpose of combating corruption in itself , the minister for women affairs is a woman, there’s only one woman in the cabinet, and speaking of human rights, most of the parties in the cabinet are led by warlords. Again, smooth as always from our politicians.
So who’s winning?
It’s time to count the shares.
The President’s share is made of 4 ministers, the FPM’s share is made of 4,5 ministers (again, the 0,5 here is Pharaon), the tachnag and the LDP each have 1 minister. That means that the Change and reform bloc get the 1/3 + 1 of the cabinet (10,5 ministers out of 30). That’s the blocking third you’re seeing here, and those ten ministers theoretically answer to the Godfather of the C&R bloc, who also happens to be the President of the Lebanese Republic Michel Aoun. In other words, while Michel Aoun cannot by the rules of the Lebanese constitution change his Prime Minister by a simple presidential decree like the pre-Taef days, he can deny quorum by ordering his ministers to boycott the sessions and even dethrone Hariri by another method: Asking his 11 ministers to resign. For the first time since 2005, the FPM are in command of the veto power in the cabinet without the help of the Marada, Hezbollah and Amal to reach the blocking third. THIS IS HUGE. And we aren’t mentioning here that Bassil, leader of the FPM, will be his father-in-law’s foreign minister, while the FPM and President got to have the defense and justice ministries, two important ministries, especially when you realize that Lebanon’s two biggest sources of political conflict, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s arms, are directly related to those two ministries. In a way, Hezbollah gets to keep those two issues under control via the supervision of the FPM (still Hezbollah’s ally)
The LF have 3,5 ministers (and 4,5 portfolios), probably in order to limit their voting influence in parliament while also making them feel they’re on the winning side although they did not get any key ministry and only managed to hold one important ministry (as opposed to Aoun’s C&R bloc who got 2 important portfolios and 1 sovereign one). This strategy had already been used with Michel Sleiman in 2014 when the former president received more portfolios than seats (Michel Sleiman’s minister of Defense was Deputy PM in 2014 whereas now the LF’s health minister is the Deputy PM). The LF, however, get the important ministry of health, the official spokesman post of the cabinet (who is the minister of information), the prestigious post of Deputy Prime Minister, the ministry of Social affairs (not that important but nevertheless a very smart choice before parliamentary elections), and the half of Michel Pharaon’s ministry 😛 . 3,5 votes out of 30 isn’t so bad after all for a party that has 8 members of parliament out of 128.
All in all, should Aoun’s C&R ministers (including the tachnag misnister, Arslan and the Sunni minister of environment – Tarek Khatib – curiously representing the FPM) join forces with the LF in their quest to dominate the government, they’ll have in common 10,5+3,5=14 ministers, only one minister short of the cabinet’s half. If the FPM-LF alliance holds, the Christian alliance will manage to make out of most of its plans true if it manages to maneuver correctly in the cabinet.
The Future Movement have 7 ministers/votes (including the sovereign interior ministry portfolio that deals with parliamentary elections) behind the Prime Minister (the biggest bloc in the cabinet), and when you add the 3 ministers of Amal, the 2 ministers of the PSP, the Marada minister, and the 3 votes of the Lebanese Forces, you’ll find that the Prime Minister has 16 votes of close allies by him. That’s the 1/2 +1 of the cabinet, enough for Hariri to take decisions without the green light of the President (provided the LF side with Hariri and not Aoun, that Amal side with him against Aoun, and that the 11 ministers who answer in a way or another to the President do not resign and take the cabinet down with them as an objection to the PM’s unilateral moves)
Amal (3 ministers) hit the jackpot for the second year in a row with the finance ministry (did I also mention that the Finance minister is the only minister who has to sign everything?) and can sow discontent in the cabinet by manipulating everyone with the help of Frangieh’s minister and Hezbollah, although they are unlikely to do so since it would be a declaration of war on Hariri – the last thing Berri needs right now.
Hezbollah have literally the smallest share in the cabinet in terms of quantity (2) and quality (sports and industry), but oversee the justice and defense departments via the FPM, and, in March 8 terms, are at the core of the majority in the cabinet: While Hariri is indeed the Prime Minister, the C&R bloc have at least 10 ministers, Amal have 3, Frangieh has 1, the SSNP party has 1, and they have 2. THE MARCH 8 ALLIANCE HAS THE MAJORITY OF THE CABINET WITH 17 MINISTERS. That makes you think how the decision from Hariri to elect Aoun without agreeing on a package deal first could have been a strategic mistake. When it comes to M14/M8 comparisons, Hariri is only Prime Minister in name: He will lead a cabinet where the parties who were known as the March 8 alliance in 2009, his rival coalition, form the majority, although his initial alliance had won the 2009 elections. In two words: Lebanese politics.
The biggest loser in the cabinet however is Jumblatt. The leader of the PSP has lost one of the three Druze ministries to Arslan without being able to do anything about it, while one of his two ministers, Marwan Hamadeh, had earlier defected in 2011 to the side of the Future Movement and isn’t really predictable. Jumblatt wasn’t at the center of the FPM-FM deal or even at the center of the FPM-LF deal, and that made him pay the price. The lack of Druze alternative as well as his lasting alliance with Berri are arguably the only things that got him to stay in the Lebanese cabinet.
Just like the PSP, the Kataeb did not join the new political trend in Lebanese politics, and have thus left a government where they were heavily over-represented (Salam’s one) to take the role of the only party in the Lebanese parliament to be in the opposition…with 5 MPs. It’s a very huge gamble, but it’s not as if they had the choice: One of the main unwritten goals of the FPM-LF January deal was probably to oust the Kataeb from parliament, and trying to blend in next to the FPM and the LF in the cabinet would have only made it worse for the Kataeb. Samy Gemayel’s last hope of survival remains to take over the Metn’s 8 seats this May, and he has been already planning that battle for a long time now.
This was the 26th post in a series of bimonthly posts covering developments in Lebanese politics. This post is about the months of November and December 2016.