Lebanon's feuding leaders have struck a deal on the formation of a new government – five months after a Western-backed coalition secured a narrow electoral victory against the Hezbollah-led opposition.
The formation of a national unity government, which includes two members of Hezbollah, could usher in a period of stability for Lebanon as it attempts to chart its way out of five years of political turmoil and bloodshed.
Many challenges remain, however, not least the tensions over Hezbollah's continued armed status, which was highlighted again last week with Israel's seizure of a cargo ship carrying 500 tons of weapons and ammunition allegedly destined for the militant Shiite group. Lebanon also remains caught between regional rivalries and the divergent interests of Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – factors that analysts say will virtually paralyze foreign-policy decisionmaking by Saad Hariri, the prime minister designate, and his new cabinet.
"There will be a delicate balance in the country," says Sateh Noureddine, columnist for Lebanon's As Safir newspaper. "It will be able to resolve minor issues related to social and economic problems, but will not be able to deal with any big political issues related to Syria, Israel, Iran – anything related to the foreign policy of Lebanon."
'A chance to rise again'
The identities of the 30 new ministers were unveiled Monday night following a meeting between Hariri, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, and Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker. The ministerial portfolios were split between the leading political blocs, reflecting their respective shares in parliament.
The March 14 bloc, a coalition of mainly Christians and Sunnis that is supported by the West as well as Saudi Arabia, received 15 seats. The Hezbollah-led parliamentary alliance, which includes mainly Shiites and Christians, was handed 10 seats – two of which went to Hezbollah politicians. The remaining five portfolios were filled by people chosen by the politically neutral president.
"The cabinet will either allow the Lebanese to renew trust in their institutions, or it will lead them to repeat their past failures to achieve consensus," Hariri said. "I know the experiences of the previous phase were not encouraging.... Lebanon almost fell into the unknown, but trust in the Lebanese people's perseverance made us win over strife and give the country the chance to rise again."
Hariri said that his government would focus on tackling the economy, administrative reform, and implementing a long-standing project to privatize some state utilities.
Although the 15-10-5 allocation of cabinet seats was agreed upon shortly after the June election, the process became mired in arguments about who would head the various portfolios.
Lebanon's domestic disputes often reflect the broader power struggles between regional rivals that back competing factions here. But the wrangling over the distribution of cabinet portfolios this time appears to have been a homegrown affair. The deadlock was finally broken last week, when Syria and Saudi Arabia leaned on their respective Lebanese allies.
Next step: Defining Hezbollah 'resistance'
The next stage is the drawing up of a government policy statement. The key element of the statement will be the status of the "resistance" – Hezbollah's military wing, whose activities have landed the group on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations. The previous national unity government granted legitimacy to the "resistance" to seek the liberation of remaining Lebanese territory under Israeli occupation.
"The drafting of the ministerial statement will not be a problem at all, on the grounds that in parallel to Lebanon's commitment to Resolution 1701 [which ended the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006], it is the right of the people, Army, and the resistance to restore land by all means available," Suleiman was quoted as saying in Lebanese newspapers Tuesday, echoing the phrase contained in the previous government's policy statement.
The new government is expected to reaffirm that clause, although it is certain to raise reservations from ministers who oppose Hezbollah's armed status, especially those drawn from some Christian parties, such as the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange.
Still, there is a consensus among most political leaders that the fate of Hezbollah's arms is the most divisive issue facing the country and requires time and stable conditions to reach a compromise. Suleiman has said he intends to reconvene the national dialogue sessions, a round table forum established in 2006 grouping Lebanon's top leaders to resolve outstanding issues. Many Lebanese are fearful of a repeat of the mini-civil war that erupted in May 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies briefly overran Sunni-populated areas of Beirut in response to a decision by the government to clamp down on Hezbollah's internal communications network.
"The major hurdles in the government have been overcome, and the issue of Hezbollah's arms will be addressed in the national dialogue," says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "We should experience a modicum of stability for a while, but do not expect any earth-shattering changes from the government."