Cozily ensconced on the fifth floor of Widener Library, surrounded by musty tomes and post-it notes, I’ve finally found a moment to check on the old blog after a fortnight’s hiatus.
Luckily, there is actually something to talk about. Saad al-Hariri has finally put together a cabinet proposal and submitted it to President Suleiman for approval. The response from the Free Patriotic Movement has been predictably hostile, with General Aoun calling all FPM ministers-designate to boycott the new cabinet, which reportedly gives the party five seats including (sources say) the Industry, Social Affairs, Public Works, and Education portfolios.
Several questions come to mind.
- Why has it taken Hariri sixty-nine days to put together a cabinet that spurns Aoun’s demands? In other words, if he was going to deny him the Telecommunications and Interior ministries, why didn’t he do it a lot earlier?
- Hariri would have had to secure Jumblatt’s approval for this proposal before going forward with it. Does Jumblatt’s approval of a cabinet lineup that the opposition will almost certainly reject suggest that he is returning to the March 14 fold?
- When the opposition does reject this proposal, what will Hariri’s next move be? Is he prepared to call the opposition’s bluff and say, “Well I tried to form a national unity government but you rejected it, so tough luck,” or will he return to the drawing board?
I’m hoping that one of the many excellent Beirut-based political journalists who read this blog will get on the phone to the various party offices and answer these questions for us. In the meantime, here are my own musings.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve found myself deeply puzzled by the behavior of Lebanon’s political elite. On the one hand, you have the leaders of the Free Patriotic Movement, who talk about being persecuted by Hariri and being denied their “rights.” What rights are these, exactly? I’ve scoured the Lebanese Constitution searching for a hint to what Aoun and Bassil are talking about, but my efforts have been fruitless.
As strange as the FPM’s rhetoric is, however, Hariri’s behavior has been all the more mystifying. Practically from the start, the PM-designate has behaved like his coalition lost the election, going from one meeting to another, listening to every demand, threat, and insult. Not to use a March 14 talking point, but what really is the point of winning an election if you can’t be the final arbiter of who gets what in the cabinet? (By the way, I would have felt the same way had the tables been turned and a March 8 PM-designate’s efforts were being blocked by the LF or the Kata’eb.)
At the end of the day, the question is: “What is Hariri afraid of?” Why is he committed to a national unity government? Is this a condition imposed upon him by the Saudis, or perhaps by the more independent, pro-Syrian wing of March 14 (like Jumblatt, Miqati, Safadi, Murr, etc)?
Or is Hariri worried about a return to the bad old days of 2006-08, with an opposition sit-in disguised as some kind of benign labor dispute, with the goal of bringing down the government?
I asked a well-connected political analyst these questions recently and he responded as follows:
Essentially, no one wanted to go back to the majority-opposition dichotomy of the years before, not the Saudis nor Saad or March 14. Yes, it’s too polarizing, and it doesn’t fit into regional alignments, with the Saudis and the Syrians still wanting to take advantage of their so-called (and uneasy) reconciliation. They disagree over Lebanon, but they don’t want to divorce because of this. So national unity was the catchword.
With Saad al-Hariri now saying that “there is one majority in Lebanon,” perhaps the Saudis have decided that they’re tired of being conciliatory.