For a period of a couple months, the cabinet formation was help up by a dispute about the appointment of Gebran Bassil — Michel Aoun’s son-in-law — as Telecommunications Minister. Aoun wanted him re-appointed; Saad Hariri did not. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the FPM was allowed to keep the Telecommunications Ministry as long as Bassil did not head it.
While it seems that the deal allowed both parties to save face, I can’t help but wonder whether the entire operation was an elaborate (and ingenious) bait-and-switch on Michel Aoun’s part.
Why? Consider the outcome. Gebran Bassil ended up landing a different prestigious ministry (Energy and Water) which, like Telecommunications, is a candidate for privatization and desperately in need of high-profile reform. Meanwhile, the Telecommunications Ministry is going to be skippered by Dr. Charbel Nahas, a deeply learned economist and a vociferous critic of Hariri & Co.’s management of the country’s finances.
Nahas, who was educated in France and spent twelve years teaching at the Lebanese University in addition to working in the private sector, has published widely in the areas of urban and physical planning, banking and economics, social anthropology and history (see his website for more information). The leftists love him and can scarcely believe that he has been appointed as a minister; indeed, he wasn’t even among the names being floated earlier in the summer, which deepens my conviction that Aoun deliberately planned to whip him out him as a “compromise candidate” at the opportune moment.
Dr. Nahas’s diverse background leads me to wonder whether the FPM is planning to use him as a kind of shadow Finance Minister, or at least as the point man to challenge the policies of the Finance Ministry — which has been in the hands of the Hariri family since 1992. Nahas would be ideally suited for this job, if his publications are any indication. See, for example, the text of an argument presented before the Constitutional Court, delightfully titled (in rhymed Arabic prose, according to the custom of classical literature) The Noble Petitioner’s Guide to the Secret of Wondrous Accounting. The text criticizes a law which allocated “the proceeds of privatization, the foreseen primary surplus in the budget, and the proceeds of the sale of future public revenues (hidden under the title of securitization)” to servicing Lebanon’s huge public debt. This formula, Nahas notes, is no different from “the formulas of the Public Debt Funds that the colonial powers imposed on the Ottoman Empire or on Egypt or on China in the XIXth century.” In Lebanon, however, it is not a foreign power that is doing the imposing, but rather a corrupt political elite that is in bed with the country’s creditors. You get the idea.
As an impressionistic little confirmation of my suspicions regarding Nahas’s real purpose in this cabinet, consider the fact he wasted no time in calling for a review of the Lebanese economic system, in the context of the first ministerial meeting to discuss the cabinet statement. “Yes, Mr. Telecommunications Minister, we’ll definitely look into that…”
A couple of days ago, Angry Arab wrote:
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.
Ms. Tee, over at B-side Beirut has this to say:
The Free Patriotic Movement has chosen no other than economist, activist, and intellectual Sharbil Nahhas for the post of Minister of Telecommunications. To those of you not familiar with Sharbil Nahhas, his website (trilingual) gives a good idea of his qualifications. Nahhas is a reformer in spirit with a fundamental critique and understanding of our sectarian system. Over the past two decades, Nahhas has put together several proposals, such as a strategy for social development and a law proposal for a pension scheme, that, needless to say, never made it through the system. As the inside man, there is reason to hope a little.
Will Nahas be the reformer that everyone is waiting for? Time will tell. I’m particularly interested in observing how the FPM is going to negotiate the political shoals with its ally, Hezbollah, when the issue of privatization and other economic reforms come up.
A final note while we’re on the subject of reform: the new issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin is online. Have a good weekend.