Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14

The New Cabinet: Observations & Projections

The dust still hasn’t settled on the new cabinet — partly because some ministers are actively trying to kick it up — but it’s worth remarking briefly on some of its features, and on the challenges facing PM Hariri over the next week or so.

kataeb1) The Kata’eb Defection: As we’ve all heard by now, the Kata’eb — a key Christian party in the March 14 Forces, led by former President Amin Gemayel — has threatened to turn down the ministry it was offered (Social Affairs) and drop out of the March 14 alliance.

There are two broad questions that should be asked about this development. The first is, essentially: why? Why is the party pursuing this course of action? Are they really so furious about the ministry they received, or just feigning indignation in order to extract some other concessions out of the PM?

On the one hand, I can understand the frustration: Social Affairs is a pretty lousy ministry, especially given the fact that the Lebanese Forces (another Christian ally of March 14 with more or less the same parliamentary weight as the Kata’eb) was given two portfolios in the new cabinet, one of them the highly visible Ministry of Justice. Sami Gemayel had been calling publicly for the Education Ministry earlier last week, presumably so that it would look like Hariri gave them what they were demanding, were he only to give them one seat. But to dump them with Social Affairs alone looks like a snub, which brings us to the next issue.

2) National Unity, the sequel: Imagining for a moment that Hariri’s move wasn’t an innocent oversight, the second question to be asked is, “Why did the PM feel ok about snubbing the Kata’eb and risking a defection?” There have been signs that the party has grown disenchanted and suspicious of Hariri (if you recall, they rejected his first proposed cabinet lineup in September.) Hariri had to have known that Gemayel and co. may try to go all in if he didn’t give them the Education Ministry, so why did he provoke them (and why is he now calling their bluff)?

saad with berri and nasrallahHere’s a guess. As we’ve said before, the era of the March 14-March 8 rivalry is over. It died, more or less, on the day after the election, and Jumblatt’s decision to drop out of Hariri’s coalition was the final nail in the coffin. The March 14 coalition, or what’s left of it, doesn’t command a majority in parliament, so what’s the point of trying to maintain it anymore?

If Hariri wants to be able to govern effectively, he needs to build a new coalition. Or, at least, he needs to re-build the kinds of partnerships that his father constructed and manipulated so masterfully, reaching across the aisle to court erstwhile opponents like Hezbollah, AMAL, and the FPM. Those are the parties with the real clout in their communities and the seats in parliament. If I had to guess, this is more or less what’s in the back of the young PM’s mind.

3) Hezbollah’s Arms & Israel: The final major issue on the horizon is how Hariri decides to deal with the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, in the cabinet statement. Given the change in the regional atmosphere (moving from confrontation to reconciliation and diplomatic engagment), I’d say it’s almost certain that the same language is going to be used that went into the previous statements: Hezbollah is not a militia, it’s the legitimate expression of the Lebanese people’s resistance to regain their land, etc.

What happens if Israel decides to test Hariri’s tight-rope act? We’ll have to wait and see.

I’ll be updating this page as more news comes in, so stay tuned. In the meantime, the Gray Lady has given us the nod.
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18 thoughts on “The New Cabinet: Observations & Projections

  1. The number game.
    Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces do not have more or less the same parliamentary weight (Kataeb and Marada do, and each was granted 1 ministry).
    The Kataeb have 5 MPs (one of which was lent by the PSP in Aley out of the share of Mustaqbal, and another seat in Tripoli was lent by Mustaqbal) while the Lebanese Forces have 8 MPs (only one seat is actually borrowed from the PSP and Mustaqbal out of the share of the PSP).

    Posted by worriedlebanese | November 10, 2009, 11:13 am
  2. Oooh, I love number games.

    Who are you counting as an LFer? 🙂

    I’m counting Adwan, Strida, Elie Keyrouz, Antoine Zahra, Farid Habib, and Tony Abu Khatir.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 10, 2009, 11:35 am
  3. Elias: Congratulations. If the NY Times considers you “influential” you’ve obviously arrived.

    Posted by john lundberg | November 10, 2009, 1:06 pm
  4. Am not convinced that Hariri is innocent in his actions. Keep in mind that this is not the first time he has dealt this way the M14 Christians. Without going over his course of action, we cannot forget how Almustaqbal caught its Christian allies off guard by backing Sleiman for the presidency. This first slap across the face was followed by several actions which gave plenty of fuel to GMA’s frenzied engine against M14 Christians.
    The Samy Gemayel wing of the party has no confidence in Hariri and they do not trust him to the same extent that GMA does not. The Samy Gemayel wing of the Kataeb is only used to opposition and is building a brand on “no more compromises”. If they win this round, they will have done the Kataeb a favor.

    Posted by Haha | November 10, 2009, 1:24 pm
  5. First of all, congrats to QN for the Times nod!

    I like your analysis, especially point 2. In my opinion, neither M14 nor M8 were ever really built on principles and policies, let alone common principles and policies. If anything, the opposition had the most in common, which was opposition to the government, but now that they’re part of it…

    Regarding Kataeb, do you think that it might turn out beneficial for them to be seen as independent, given that it is highly likely that the new government will be largely ineffectual?

    And finally, I’ve always hoped for a Future – FPM rapprochement, as I think those two parties have the most recognizable actual policies and constituents that care about policies. Let’s see if the doors are opened for this now.

    Posted by PB | November 10, 2009, 3:01 pm
  6. Thank you John, and PB!

    Here are Angry Arab’s thoughts on the Lebanese cabinet:

    So there is a new Lebanese cabinet. Nothing new. Lebanon was and will be always on the verge of civil war, even if it does not descend into civil war. The cabinet will not solve a thing. A few remarks. The former leftists in the cabinet: Hariri Minister, Hasan Mnaymnah (a professor at the Lebanese University, not to be confused with a former leftist in the US by that name, who works with Kenan Makiya), was appointed a minister of Education. He has been working in the Hariri apparatus for years. In his youth, he was active in the Communist Action Organization, but left in 1973, as a leader of the organization informs me. He is a secular and is not part of the Salafi-Wahhabi branch of the Hariri movement. His wife told NBN TV that he likes mulukhiyyah and grape leaves. His favorite sport is walking, to the store across the street and back.

    I am told that Birri’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, `Ali Shami, was also previously a member of the Lebanese Communist Party. He is not distinguished and not much is known about him. Has not been active in years.

    Sharbil Nahhas (`Awn’s Minister of Telecommunication) was also a member of the Lebanese Communist Party, and worked as an economist for the Huss cabinet from 1998 to 2000. I expect this brilliant economist (and I only heard positive things about him) to be the star of the new cabinet, and the most persistent critic of the Hariri apparatus. He is fiercely opposed to the Hariri disastrous policies, and is determined to combat the corruption of Hariri’s plans. Nahhas as a choice is a punishment for the Hariri movement: they wanted to excluded Jubran Basil from the Ministry of Telecommunication because he was defiant and assertive, so `Awn brought in somebody who will prove to be more defiant and more persistent.

    `Awn picks Ministers much better than other groups in Lebanon (although his choice of MPs is not good at all). Nabih Birri and the Amal Movement always picks the worst ministers, EVER. They are either notoriously corrupt or so lame and invisible or both. The one exception to Birri’s ministers, is the successful Minister of Health, Muhammad Jawad Khalifah.

    Hizbullah always chooses to leave the best ministries for his allies. They got Ministry of State for Administrative Development (Muhmmad Fnaysh), and Ministry of Agriculture (Husayn Al-Hajj Hasan). Fnayash was known as tough and serious but he has not distinguished himself in the cabinet at all, and when he served as Minister of Electricity he went along with the privatization plans of the Hariri Inc. (Did I not tell you that Hizbullah should not be treated as a leftist party? It is not, pure and simple). Fnayash like all Hizbullah ministers and MPs come from poor background. He grew up in the slums of East Beirut, and was an Arab nationalist Nasserist, and formed his own little Arab nationalist Nasserist group. He studied at the Lebanese University and when Israel invaded in 1982, he volunteered and fought as part of a small volunteer force. Husayn Hajj Hasan was a brilliant prodigy: won scholarship and awards as a student, and then received more state scholarships from Lebanon and France to complete his PhD in physics in France. Unlike most Hizbullah leaders, he is relaxed, humorous and does not scare little children when he speaks. He is jovial and has good relations with various Lebanese groups. One blemish in his record: he invested with the Salah `Izz Ad-Din. He later sued `Izz Ad-Din, but people spoke on the matter.

    Fadi `Abbud, the `Awn minister of Tourism will also be a dynamic character: he was behind the creation of the giant Hummus dish in Lebanon, and also hates Hariri policies.

    I heard good things about the new Minister of Finance, Rayya Haffar. She worked in the finance department of the Hariri mini-government, and is not overtly political, like the former Minister, Muhammad Shatah.

    Expect Jumblat’s three ministers to serve as irritants to Hariri, especially after Walid Jumblat makes his first pilgrimage to Damascus.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 10, 2009, 3:29 pm
  7. Lebanon would be so much better off without any of the current political parties that are either fascists, sectarian or purely regional or even feudalistic.

    We did miss a great opportunity to transform the Al Mustaqbal/march 14 into a truly national, integrated and diverse political party that has its own internal rules and that does not suffer of the cult of personality. But as usual we did not capitalize on the window of opportunity while it was opened in 2005. I think that the window is shut at the moment but will open at some point in the future.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | November 10, 2009, 4:57 pm
  8. Thanks QN for the thorough analysis and for formatting angry arab’s post into readable paragraphs!

    Don’t you feel that in case of a defection, the Kataeb would gain in terms of popularity, being the only Christian party not subservient to either the “Syrian/Iranian/Shiite axis” or the “Saudi/Sunni axis”? The FPM was in that position in 2005 and it was to its advantage in the ballots.

    I agree with most of angry arab’s analysis except for his description of Muhammad Khalifeh!
    Husayn Hajj Hasan: “Unlike most Hizbullah leaders, he is relaxed, humorous and does not scare little children when he speaks.” That cracked me up!

    Posted by mas | November 10, 2009, 5:56 pm
  9. The Angry Arab’s piece is really interesting, thanks for sharing. I agree with his analysis of Aoun’s picks.

    I have a question: what’s happened of / what’s next for Fouad Siniora?

    Posted by Wa Law | November 10, 2009, 8:19 pm
  10. mas,

    The FPMers are thinking along the same lines as you are: being in the opposition was pretty good for us, and maybe it will be good for the Kata’eb as well.

    I’m not sure… if Nadim and Sami were a lot more charismatic and expressed a real vision, then maybe I could see that. But for now, neither is terribly inspiring. Well, Nadim is better than Sami, as far as public speaking goes.

    I don’t know much about Mohammed Khalifeh. I know As`ad thinks very highly of him. He’s going to be at Harvard this weekend; maybe I’ll try to interview him for the blog…

    Yes the crack about Husayn Hajj Hasan was funny; I think the “scaring little children” thing was directed at Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyid, who does kind of sound like a creature from the abyss when he talks.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 10, 2009, 8:20 pm
  11. Wa Law

    Good question. No clue.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 10, 2009, 8:22 pm
  12. The new (and former) health minister is a pure technocrat: a qualified person with no apparent place in this calculus. There other such people kicking around Amal; kind of gives lie to the idea that every 50-ish clever type gravitated to Hizbollah. Some never had the option, for political considerations that govern the formation of Lebanese cabinets (or at least the ones I saw born/miscarried).

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | November 10, 2009, 8:34 pm
  13. @ QN 2
    The number game is effectively very interesting. The affiliation I rely on are those of the government blocs that were submitted to Nabih Berri after his re-election.
    It is a bit tricky because of the fictitious “independents” and the numerous borrowing and lending games you find during elections (Mustaqbal is the biggest lender, followed by Hezbollah followed by the PSP) and after the elections. There are at least a dozen MP who are not really part of the blocs they are in (they are either part of another patronage network or another ideological formation).

    Going back to the Lebanese Forces: Chant Janjanian and Joseph Maalouf abandoned Fattouch after the elections and joined the Lebanese Forces bloc (the Kataeb expressed shock because these two men had run as “independents”).

    Posted by worriedlebanese | November 11, 2009, 3:07 am
  14. WL,

    It was very well known that at least Jeanjeanian was an LF before the elcections…That’s why LF “lent” Toursarkissian to Mustakbal in Beirut (for Richard Kouyoumjian) in Zahle…

    Posted by danny | November 11, 2009, 9:09 am
  15. I totally agree with you Danny.
    But I would be more specific in my terminology. Tor Sarkissian wasn’t lent to Mustaqbal, his seat was lent. In analysing the electoral market, I think it’s important to distinguish between seat lending (or seat swaps) and MP lending.
    To stay in Jumblatistan, Adwan or Habre are good examples of seat lending. Gharios today or Andraos yesterday are good examples of MP lending.
    What is interesting in these types of arrangements is that they do not seem to have an effect on local politics, at least not yet. Maybe the coming municipal elections will change this trend…

    Posted by worriedlebanese | November 11, 2009, 9:44 am


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