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.
1) 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)?
Here’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.