We’re hearing more and more about the possibility of a “Doha II” agreement, a negotiated settlement to the anticipated standoff about the composition of Lebanon’s next cabinet. With Michel Aoun demanding a cabinet share proportional to his bloc’s strength in parliament, it’s clear that March 14 will not be able to assemble the cabinet simply by giving Hizbullah guarantees on the inviolability of its resistance. It will also have to deal with Aoun.
The original Doha Agreement produced a 30 member cabinet with 16 ministers for the majority, 11 for the opposition, and 3 ministers loyal to President Suleiman. This arrangement gave the opposition just over one third of the cabinet’s seats, the proportion needed to block legislation on “basic national issues”. The one-third-plus-one share also has a “nuclear option”, whereby the government can be brought down if the entire cabinet minority resigns. Here’s what the Lebanese Constitution says about the functioning of the cabinet (or Council of Ministers):
Article 65.5: “The Council of Ministers meets in a locale specifically set aside for it, and the President chairs its meetings when he attends. The legal quorum for a Council meeting is a majority of two thirds of its members. It makes its decisions by consensus. If that is not possible, it makes its decisions by vote of the majority of attending members. Basic national issues require the approval of two thirds of the members of the Council named in the Decree forming the Cabinet. Basic national issues are considered the following:
The amendment of the constitution, the declaration of a state of emergency and its termination, war and peace, general mobilization, international agreements and treaties, the annual government budget, comprehensive and longterm development projects, the appointment of Grade One government employees and their equivalents, the review of the administrative map, the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies, electoral laws, nationality laws, personal status laws, and the dismissal of Ministers.”
I am personally uncomfortable with the idea of a Doha II Agreement, and not because I’m opposed to the idea of a national unity government. The problem with a Doha II is that it runs the risk of serving as a band-aid remedy, an antidote whose utility lies only in satisfying immediate political demands rather than addressing the larger underlying issues. Let us ask ourselves, honestly: would anyone be talking about cabinet vetoes if it weren’t for the issue of Hizbullah’s weapons? The fact that Hizbullah itself is theoretically willing to drop its demand in exchange for suitable “guarantees” weakens the opposition’s case that the current system violates the consensual logic of Lebanese governance.
What I would prefer to see is a full-fledged debate on the issues that puts everything on the table, eschews closed-door deal-making in favor of constitutional amendments, and works within the existing framework of the Ta’if Accord. Virtually all of Lebanon’s political parties are in agreement on the fact that Ta’if provides the blueprint for a viable political future. Even the Aounists, who complain loudly about the weakening of presidential powers as a result of Ta’if, cleave to its recommendations regarding a non-confessional electoral law and the creation of a senate. If we’re going to go to the trouble of coming up with a Doha II, why not at least harmonize its features with the prescriptions of the Ta’if Accord?
The obvious answer to this question is that none of the political players are actually that interested in implementing Ta’if, despite what their voluminous electoral platforms indicate. This is where Lebanon’s civil society needs to swing into action. Rather than sitting back and complaining about the horsetrading conducted over the next several weeks, civil society organizations should be engaged in a public campaign to raise expectations for the kind of deal that should eventually be made. After all, we’ve just spent several months listening to political leaders talking about second independences, third republics, and building the state. Now is just as good a time as any to hold them to their word.
PS: Check out Jimmy Carter’s opinion of Jeffrey Feltman. It’s amusing.