In a week from today, Lebanon will have been without a functioning government for three months. That’s not quite as long as the four and a half month stint that the country endured in 2009 following the legislative elections, but it’s still an embarrassingly long delay.
Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about it is the fact that the March 14th coalition has opted to stay out of the next government, giving March 8th (the new majority) free rein to put together a cabinet without having to manage the whims and stalling tactics of its opponents. When Saad al-Hariri set about forming a government in 2009, he had to deal with the demands of his own allies as well as those of Hizbullah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement, and Abu Tanjara, who all had something to say about a myriad of contentious issues, from the sanctity of the resistance to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
This time around, things should be simpler, right? So what’s taking so long? Inquiring minds (not just my own, but also Nabih Berri’s and Ghazi al-Aridi’s) want to know. There has been much speculation on the various issues that are at stake, but it seems clear that the main obstacle can be summarized as follows:
Two former Lebanese Army generals named Michel want the right to appoint one of their allies to the Interior Ministry. One of the generals represents the largest bloc of MPs in the current parliamentary majority. The other general is the President of the Republic and must sign off on any cabinet lineup for it to be legally approved. Without the bloc leader’s votes, the President would have no cabinet decree to sign. Without the President’s signature, the bloc leader would have no seats in the cabinet.
In other words, you’ve got two equal and diametrically opposed forces bearing down on the same area. What is the result? Stalemate.
As usual, the problem is basically a structural one. The Lebanese Constitution does not provide any elucidation for how to move beyond the current impasse. Aoun is within his rights to demand any portfolio he would like, and President Sleiman is within his rights to accept or refuse any cabinet lineup that is placed before him. Both men are at each other’s mercy. Ironically, however, they are also each at the height of their own powers. Consider the following:
Aoun has never had a better opportunity to shape a cabinet under circumstances as favorable as the current ones, where his bloc represents the senior partner in the parliamentary majority and where the opposition has decided not to join the cabinet. (Given his age and health concerns, he may never get a clearer shot to control the agenda than this one.) Without Aoun, there would be no March 8th cabinet, and if Miqati fails in his efforts, it would be exceedingly difficult for Hizbullah and its allies to appoint anyone else to the job who could pick up where Miqati left off. Aoun knows this, so he is doing what he does best: sticking to his guns and waiting for his opponents (or, as the case may be, his allies) to blink first.
Similarly, Sleiman knows that a Lebanese president is never more powerful than when he is being asked to sign off on a cabinet-forming decree. Almost all of the president’s powers are either ceremonial or revocable. One of the only truly significant things that he can do is to refuse to sign a decree forming a new cabinet. For a nice reflection on the importance of this principle, take a look at the following excerpt from Wikileaks cable 07BEIRUT1724 (which dates back to Nov. 5, 2007, when the US was pushing its March 14th allies to elect a new president with a simple majority.)
The danger is that a compromise over the presidency combined with the “blocking/toppling third” in the cabinet that the pro-Syrians will insist upon puts March 14 in potentially a worse position than it is today, no matter how stellar a good PM’s March 14 credentials might be. The pro-Syrian ministers could not topple Siniora’s cabinet a year ago because they did not have sufficient numbers to do so. In a new cabinet, they are likely to have that third, meaning that they can topple the cabinet at will. This is not an insurmountable problem if the president is March 14: he can work with the parliamentary majority to see that the replacement cabinet is an improvement, without a toppling third given again to the pro-Syrians. But if the president is weak or under Syrian influence, he will likely use his signatory power over the cabinet formation — signatory power that cannot be overridden — to insist again that the pro-Syrians have the toppling third, continuing the cycle of pro-Syrian vetoes over cabinet action… All of this argues, of course, for a credible president committed to March 14 principles as the first step to resolving Lebanon’s political crisis.
In other words, once Sleiman signs that piece of paper, the clock strikes midnight and his carriage turns back into a pumpkin. He has virtually no way to dictate the government’s agenda besides holding out for the best deal he can get right now. What this means, among other things, is that he is probably coming under a great deal of pressure from March 14th (and perhaps also the US ambassador and the Saudis) to continue to play hardball with Aoun.