Let The Wookie Win

Lebanese Government - 2019

Meet the new Lebanese Cabinet

You take a newspaper. You read a headline. Berri is Speaker of the Parliament. Elie Ferzli is deputy Speaker of the Parliament. A politician with the last name “Hariri” is Prime Minister. It says that the Lebanese President is Pro-Syrian. It says that the President’s relatives are now members of the parliament.

Is it the year 2000? Is this a dream? Did we finally discover time travel? You are confused, so you decide to read another article. It says that Ali Hassan Khalil is now minister of Finance. You are even more confused. Surely, it must be February 2014? Or is it December 2016?

No. The year is 2019. And you’re living in Lebanon, where you don’t need to travel in time because the past, the present and the future are the same. Politics is either inherited, or the politicians are immortal.

Yeah. You read that right. The year is 2019. After Nine months of jockeying and political maneuvering, the ruling parties have finally agreed on the new Lebanese government. In a parallel universe, this could have been the year 2009, when it took Saad Hariri 5 months to form his government. Or 2011, when it took Najib Mikati 5 months to form his government. Or 2014, when it took Tammam Salam 11 months to form his government.

So did Lebanese politicians fail during those 252 days? Never. Lebanese politicians never fail. They discovered 251 ways that are not helpful to form a government. And that is an achievement so great that they are already worthy of a parliamentary extension.

Name your ally

The major problem that delayed the 2018 2019 Hariri government is that there still is no clear parliamentary identity since the 2018 elections. Hezbollah is allied to Amal, the FPM and the Marada, while being the FM’s main political rival. The FPM is closer to the FM than it is to Amal and has a confusing alliance with the LF and a recent rivalry with the Marada. The LF aren’t on good terms with Hezbollah, and while Arslan is allied to the FPM and Hezbollah, trying to maintain a relative political autonomy, no one exactly knows where the PSP stands.

Lebanon has been surviving with the exact same parliament for the past ten years, with – until late 2015 – alliances that were more or less stable. There were “March 8”, “March 14” and “the independents”, and the broad definition of every coalition was its opinion regarding Hezbollah – with some politicians, like Joumblatt or Mikati jumping boats every once in a while. But when in 2015 Hariri decided to support Frangieh for the presidency, all hell broke loose. Geagea allied himself with Aoun, and then Amal endorsed Frangieh. Finally, Hariri allied himself with Aoun, and the March 8 and March 14 coalitions fused into one another like a Lebanese TV series. This generated a new political status quo where there were no longer two stable coalitions dominating the political spectrum (Like it was between 2006-2016), but instead, micro-alliances between the major parties that led to very weird electoral alliances, where most parties allied themselves to different rival parties depending on the electoral constituency.

The infographic and the four awesome tables below – courtesy of the Lebanese Center for policy studies – illustrate examples of the arrivism of the Lebanese ruling parties, who did not shy away from running with and against the same rival party in different districts if it suited them best to do so.

Tables like those would have been a major shock in the 2009 elections, where the March 8 and March 14 coalitions ran coherently against each other, with the exception of Jezzine (where the FPM and Amal disagreed and supported different candidates). But when the electoral law changes, electoral alliances change accordingly. And when electoral alliances change, political alliances have a tendency to change with them. So the 2018 elections created a new political equilibrium. The FM and the PSP blocs shrunk in size, while the FPM, the LF, Hezbollah, and Amal saw their blocs increase in numbers. Which means that the new Lebanese parliament now looks like this:

Distribution of seats by Bloc - LCPS

Distribution of seats by Bloc – Image courtesy of the Lebanese Center for Policy Sudies

The Old and the New

While the political jockeying in the Pre-2015 era used to be about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics, most of the bickering since then has been about Aoun’s Presidency. While the LF were theoretically supposed to run in the elections alongside the FPM after both parties reconciled , the rivalry reemerged during the parliamentary elections. With the exception of Sabaa’s Paula Yaacoubian – the newcomer parties did not manage to get into the parliament, and although most of the ruling parties kept a representation in Nejmeh square, the 2018 parliament drastically changed from the 2009 one. While most of the focus was on how much the President’s allies could secure a majority in Parliament, Hezbollah silently achieved what it had been seeking since the 2005 elections. There is now a parliament that not only has a relative FPM majority, but also – and in the 2005 terms – a March 8 absolute majority. The blocs led by the FPM (29 MPS), the Marada (3 MPs), Amal (17 MPs), and Hezbollah (13 MPs) – In other words, Hezbollah and their allies = The March 8 Alliance – have a theoretical numerical superiority in Parliament. The accurate number is difficult to determine since a number of Pro-Hezbollah MPS (such as Osama Saad and the Six other Pro-Hezbollah ministers that form the “Consultative Gathering“) are not part of a bloc, and some of the FPM’s new allies like Michel Mouawad have not been tested yet on Hezbollah-related questions. Nevertheless, the absolute number of pro-Hezbollah MPs in the new parliament is surely higher than 65, and that new status quo is now very evident: Nabih Berri of Amal is speaker, while Elie Ferzli is his deputy, making the 2019 parliament – at least at first glance – look exactly like the Pre-Syrian Withdrawal 2000 Parliament.

It might have taken Hezbollah fifteen years, a twelve-year alliance with Amal and the FPM, two presidential vacancies, two electoral laws, and three elections, but they finally have the upper hand in Lebanese legislation.

Who rules in the Lebanese Parliament?

The Lebanese parliament’s authority when it comes to legislating, to electing the President, to naming a Prime Minister, and to giving a vote of confidence to his government, means that the key to ruling the country lies in securing a majority of the country’s parliament. And while what used to be known as The March 8 alliance now has a majority in parliament, it used to be known as the March 8 alliance for a reason. For the past three years, the FPM has been distancing itself from Amal and the Marada and has been slowly stitching a new alliance with the FM. The FPM might be okay with Hezbollah, but they outspokenly hate every other party around it. The FPM also have no absolute majority, only a relative one, and are in need of the weakened FM to balance Hezbollah’s influence in Parliament. Isolating Hariri and giving the Premiership to someone else would have also causes uproar and is diplomatically incorrect from the FPM after Hariri made Aoun’s election possible.

In other words, the new Parliament has a Pro-Hezbollah majority, but aside from that, you won’t find more than three major parties that can agree with one another well enough to form a majority government. And that is a one-way road to a “unity cabinet”, similar to the ones Lebanon had in 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2016, where every one of the leading parties in parliament is represented. And when you want to include everyone, things have a tendency to take more time.

Keeping with the tradition

According to the Legend, there is a difficult algorithm that every Prime Minister must use when forming his government: There’s a limited number of seats and portfolios to split fairly on the different parties that wish to participate in the cabinet, while also respecting sectarian affiliations. Then you have to take into consideration what coalition of parties manages to get a blocking third, what parties can form a majority in the government, and who can bring the government down or vote for a controversial decision. It’s a tough procedure, especially when every single member of the ruling parties wants a little bit more of the pie. In simpler terms, Lebanese politicians are ready to starve the people who elected them for nine months, for the sole purpose of an extra portfolio or an extra seat that might come in handy ahead of parliamentary elections or when a political clash happens.

Existential obstacles

So should Arslan get a seat in the cabinet and should it be from Jumblatt’s share? Should it be from the FPM’s share? Or should it be from the President’s share? Are Aoun and Bassil the same person, and should they be awarded combined ministers, or separate ministers? And what is the President’s share anyway? When do you give the President three ministers? Should you give him five? Is it constitutional to give him ministers anyway? Or is it unconstitutional to give him nothing? And how do you calculate the number of ministers for every bloc? Are the LF worthy of a key ministry? Should the LF be treated equally to the FPM? Should Hezbollah’s pro-Sunni bloc get a minister? Should that minister be from the President’s share? Should it be of the Prime Minister’s share? Should we give that seat to Aliens from Mars because they are independent? Or should we create two new random portfolios in the cabinet in order to generate a political equilibrium on a table in an Old Ottoman Serail in Beirut? What’s wrong with 32 ministers anyway? And since we’re there, why not create a cabinet of 128 ministers? Should the portfolios be rotated among the parties? Or are they now inherited among politicians? And what are going to name the ministers without portfolios? Are we going to name that politician who’s just here to vote when his time comes, the minister for combatting corruption? (2016 government) Or the minister of state for information technology? (2019 government) Or the minister for Social and Economic Rehabilitation of Youth and Women? (2019 government). Can’t we just name him the minister for industrial, agricultural and intellectual revolution of the Lebanese newborn child? Or should we just name him the minister for skiing and swimming in the same day?

You have to understand Lebanese politicians. Those are difficult, existential questions. Existential enough to postpone a government formation for thousands of days. Yet they only managed to do it in only 252 days. And that is an achievement. So great that they are already worthy of yet another parliamentary extension. Did you know that they also managed to fit 4 women in the government despite the fact that the algorithm was already too complicated? We should probably give them a third parliamentary extension just for thinking about representing women in 2019. There you go. Your three extensions. Just like the 2009 parliament 😍.

The algorithm is a lie

But that complicated algorithm that they take refuge behind every time a government formation is stalled is a lie. The procedure of splitting the pie might take nine months, but two years ago, when Hariri formed his second government, it didn’t take more than a month and a half for the government to see the light. A decade and a half ago, most governments were formed within ten days, sometimes within 72 hours. Almost the same obstacles stand in the way of every government formation, and yet sometimes seeking the solution takes a month instead of a year. Which begs to ask the question, how incompetent can you be so that even writing an excel sheet of 30 names becomes a task so impossible that you need nine months to complete it? Taking hundreds of days to carefully decide the names of 30 ministers – who are more or less the same 30 ministers in every cabinet – is a tradition Lebanon’s Zuamas are not willing to break. The normal lifespan of every Lebanese parliament is 4 years, and the people in charge at the top waste up to 20% of that time to decide how the pie is split (And then they proceed to eat the pie).

Nine months later: Numbers still don’t lie

Now that we’ve established the difficulty of writing 30 names on a piece of paper, it’s time to look at the new Lebanese government and how the parliamentary blocs are represented:

Share in Cabinet versus share in Parliament - Infographic courtesy of Benjamin Redd for The Daily Star

Share in Cabinet versus share in Parliament – Infographic courtesy of Benjamin Redd for The Daily Star

When you stare with joy at the colors of that infographic, you realize that the grosso-mode rule to determine the number of ministers for every bloc would be to divide the number of MPS by 4 or 5 – Sometimes it’s a bit more, sometimes it’s a bit less, depending on the portfolio of ministry you’re getting and on how much you are loved by the other parties.

In the charts, the FPM’s share seems a bit bigger because it also includes the President’s four ministers. And that only means that March 8’s parties’ domination in parliament becomes even more apparent in the cabinet due to the President’s share. Between the 4 ministers representing the President, the 6 ministers representing the FPM’s bloc, the 6 ministers representing Hezbollah and Amal, the minister representing the Marada, the minister representing the Consultative Gathering, and the minister representing the Azm, you would realize that when the time comes, Hezbollah can rally a majority of 19 ministers out of 30, one vote shy from the two-thirds, even without the help from the PSP’s two ministers, and force decisions on a cabinet that is theoretically led by its major rival, Saad Hariri (unless Hariri resigns, pushing Hezbollah to form another majority government without the FM).

But when you look at that chart from another perspective, things seem different: In theory, and if you include the consultative gathering’s minister, the FPM have 11 votes in the cabinet, which is the blocking third the FPM have been seeking for a long time. The fact that the FPM have been looking to get a blocking third in a cabinet they technically control under a President that is their founder is another level of political paranoia that supposes that they need a leverage when one day everyone will turn against them, but is also an indicator that they might start changing alliances: Historically in Lebanese politics, when a party usually looks for the magic number of 11 ministers in a government, it’s usually the minor party of the unity cabinet. However, how much of those 11 ministers would truly stick by Gebran Bassil’s leadership is something else: One of those ministers is a Pro-Arslan Druze, an other is a Pro-Hezbollah Sunni, the third is Salim Jreissati (who has sometimes been considered as closer to Hezbollah than Aoun), and the fourth is Elias Abou Saab (who is always portrayed in the media as being close to the SSNP) in a government that doesn’t have a single SSNP representative. And if one day a miracle happens and the Marada, the FPM and the LF decide to form an alliance, they can theoretically form a majority by themselves in the cabinet (Also, probably start a Civil War, but nevermind)

When you look at the charts from the LF, FM and PSP perspective, the three parties that used to be the backbone of the March 14 alliance have 11 ministers (5 FM, 4 LF, 2 PSP), curiously, the exact number they need to have a blocking third in the government, and that’s even without the help of  Mikati’s Azm party representative in the Cabinet.

For the FM, their losses in the parliamentary elections translate into a drop from 7 ministers to 5 ministers (without counting Mikati’s representative), but they managed in a way or another to keep the key ministries that were already theirs. Nevertheless, should they one day decide that an alliance with the FPM is more sustainable than the one they have with the LF, both parties can secure a majority in the cabinet without the help of anyone else (and get close to controlling a majority in the parliament).

As for the LF, they have somehow failed to increase the number of their seats although they doubled in size in the parliament, probably because their shares were exaggerated in the previous cabinet when compared to their previous parliamentary size. And for the same reason, the FPM went from 11 ministers in the previous cabinet to 10.5 in the current one (I’m gonna count the consultative gathering minister as half ).

Takeaway message? It’s a pro-Hezbollah cabinet where anyone of the parties can control the government or bring it down with the help of another party, and where alliances are not very well established by now. So if/when the cabinet eventually falls, or someone resigns within it, it’s probably because the cabinet was formed when the lines of the political coalitions in parliament were blurred. Brace yourselves.

And now to the good stuff…portfolios

Here’s how the old cabinet compares to the new one:

The old and new Cabinets -Infographic Courtesy of Benjamin Redd for the Daily Star

The old and new Cabinets – Infographic Courtesy of Benjamin Redd for the Daily Star

Numbers are usually given a big importance in Lebanese politics because decisions in the cabinet are usually subject to a vote, but the type of portfolio every party controls can be equally important. All the ministries that were with the FPM are still with the FPM (or the President), and that includes the defense and justice ministries (Read: Hezbollah keeping the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in check and keeping good relations with the Lebanese army since a direct ally is handling both defense and justice). The FPM also kept the foreign ministry and the very important energy and water ministry in their hands.

And while the Marada still have the same important public works portfolio (Read: Well maintained roads in electoral districts before elections) with the same minister, the LF have downgraded in portfolios without upgrading in the size of their share even though they have a bigger parliamentary bloc now (It’s the reason why the cabinet formation has been stalled for the first couple of months). That disproportional downgrade in quality is probably due to the fact that the FM didn’t give up any of their key ministries even though their numbers in parliament dwindled. And while the LF kept the prestigious deputy PM seat, they lost the health ministry to Hezbollah (one of the ministries that gets the most funding in the country) and got the labor ministry instead of the information minister (who is the spokesman of the cabinet).

Amal and Hezbollah on the other hand didn’t directly increase their cabinet shares but now have three small allies that are not the FPM (Frangieh, Arslan, and the consultative gathering) which gives them a Bassil-less influence in the cabinet. Hezbollah also now control the very important of health, while Amal keep the finance ministry.

As for the PSP, they get a minor victory since Arslan’s share was denied and considered to be part of the President’s share (at least on paper). They also get to keep the education ministry, but their influence is still reduced since with only two votes in the government (in every government before 2016 they used to have three ministers)

Let the Wookie Win

Aoun went to exile for 15 years to reduce Syria’s influence in Lebanon, and now is at the head of a government he helped create – that might be as Pro-Syrian as the one he helped overthrow. Aside him rules Hariri, who also spent 12 years trying to reduce Hezbollah’s influence before finally leading their coalition in government. Right under him sits an LF deputy Prime Minister – representing a party that refused to participate in a cabinet with Hezbollah and politically exiled itself for that purpose from government between 2011 and 2016. The PSP that was once the backbone the swinging vote in most political matters, has seen its influence being reduced to 2 cabinet votes. The Parliament is once again led by Berri and Ferzli, the Syrian regime’s closest allies and the same politicians who used to lead it when the Syrian Army was still in Lebanon. All of Lebanon’s leading parties that protested on the 14th of March 2005 against Syrian influence are now either allies of the regime or members in a cabinet dominated by its allies. Almost every major party in the cabinet has spent at least 15 years opposing Hezbollah and the Syrian regime’s influence, even almost triggering Civil Wars in 2008 and 2011. Most of those parties ran in the 2009 and 2018 parliamentary elections promising to stand against Hezbollah, and yet they all sit as minor partners next to Hezbollah and its allies in the first government after the 2018 elections. Which begs the following question: Why make an effort to make a party look like a Wookie and then proceed to stop the Wookie, when in the end, you’re going to let the Wookie win and even participate in that victory? What were the past 15 years for? Was it all for the purpose of sitting on a glorified chair? And what is the point of elections when the opposition and the majority end up coalescing in the same ineffective ” National Unity” cabinet every single time – or is it a national unity in failure?

Supporters of the new Lebanese political era that began after Michel Aoun was elected like to call it العهد الجديد , two words that roughly translate into “The New Era” or even “The New Testament”, a marketing strategy that gives the Lebanese an impression that they are now being ruled by saviors.

But there is nothing new about this era – nor are the Lebanese being saved by anyone. The politicians are the same warlords that have been ruling in times of war and peace, the Parliament looks like a replica from pre-2005, economic instability is the cause du jour in the country, and the new unity cabinet – destined to fail like all of its predecessors – is just a recycled old one where disagreements have started 9 months before it was even born.

But all of this is details. What matters that there is now a minister of State for the rehabilitation of Youth and Women. Whatever that means.