Friday, February 25, 2011

Little appetite for a government

The prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, must be wondering how much latitude he really has to form a government. Even if the blockages are in Beirut, events in the Middle East have further complicated his task.

The most visible obstacle facing Mikati is Michel Aoun. The general has demanded an inordinately large share of ministers, enough to hold veto power over government decisions, as well as either the Interior Ministry portfolio or that of financial affairs, which the prime minister-elect wants to offer to his political ally, Mohammad Safadi. All efforts to persuade Aoun to compromise have failed.

The enormity of Aoun’s appetite is a headache for his allies; but it is also tactically understandable given the general’s political agenda and, more broadly, the regional context in which Lebanon finds itself.

Here’s why. It is increasingly apparent that the Syrian leadership is in no hurry to see a new government formed. With the situation unraveling regionally and the possibility that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon may indict Syrian officials in the coming weeks, Damascus is not keen to take steps in Beirut that might constrain its margin of maneuver while also inviting international opprobrium. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is not about to make the same mistake he did when he extended Emile Lahoud’s mandate in 2004.

Assad probably has three major concerns. If Syrians are implicated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the president will want to ensure that any new Lebanese government is capable of shielding Syria. In all likelihood that means that Saad Hariri must in some way be represented, because only he has the standing to grant Damascus a certificate of innocence in his father’s killing. A government dominated by Hezbollah and Aoun could never do that. In fact it is more likely to intensify Assad’s tribulations if Syria finds itself confronting a hostile international community over the tribunal.

A second concern for Assad is that his regional allies are unhappy. We know that the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressed displeasure with developments in Lebanon when he met Assad in Aleppo a few weeks ago. That displeasure is apparently shared by another state that has supported Syria in recent years, namely Qatar. The Qataris saw their efforts to help find a solution in Beirut after the government’s collapse derailed by Hezbollah, which rejected outright the return of Hariri as prime minister.

Moreover, Assad knows that France is also keeping close tabs on Syrian steps in Lebanon. The French warned Assad when he visited Paris last that Syria would be held responsible for instability in the country. Assad cannot afford strained relations with France, Turkey and Qatar in the shadow of the Special Tribunal indictment.

A third concern for the Syrian president is the regional upsurge taking place against authoritarian regimes. Until now Syria has been spared unrest, but Assad cannot take chances. Any blame directed against Syrians in the Hariri affair and backed up by international pressure to deliver suspects to the tribunal could challenge the authority of his regime. This, in turn, could give ideas to those who stand opposed to Assad’s rule. In times of crisis the Syrians prefer to bide their time. Forcing too hasty an outcome in Beirut, they realize, could backfire.

Hezbollah’s priorities are different from Syria’s in this regard. The party is in a hurry to establish a government in order to officially terminate Lebanon’s ties with the Special Tribunal and move ahead with the investigation of so-called “false witnesses.” However, the party cannot readily ignore Syrian vacillation. Even if Damascus has remained ambiguous over the new government, not declaring itself for or against an early resolution to the current stalemate, this ambiguity has effectively slowed Mikati’s negotiations.

In light of this, Aoun’s intransigence makes more sense. If Syrian interests prevail and no government is formed until after the tribunal issues its indictment, then the general has no motivation to be flexible. And if Hezbollah is so keen to impose an agreement now over a government, then the only way it can realistically do so is by satisfying Aoun’s conditions. Aoun could tell his critics in March 8 that he has backed Hezbollah enough in difficult times not to have to undermine his own political ambitions today on the party’s behalf.

And what are Aoun’s ambitions? Evidently, to gain substantial sway in the government, impose himself as the sole Christian interlocutor, and eventually replace Michel Sleiman in office, under the pretext that the president’s election was unconstitutional. Indeed, under Article 49 of the constitution, and absent a constitutional amendment mandating an exception, Sleiman was obligated to resign from his post as commander of the army two years before being elected.

Had Aoun been named president in 1989, when the Taif Accord was being negotiated, it is doubtful that he would have been so scrupulous. But the narrow reality is that even March 14 politicians, for example Boutros Harb, contested Sleiman’s election on constitutional grounds. Aoun now sees an opening to strike, most probably by having 10 of his deputies appeal to the Constitutional Council, then using his veto power to hold the government hostage.

Aoun will probably be unsuccessful in the end, but that’s irrelevant. He regards the situation today as his last opportunity to satisfy his presidential aspirations and more. If he wants his political movement to survive, especially in the hands of his son-in-law, then Aoun needs to make personnel appointments in the administration, the army and the security services to protect his stakes. That is another reason why he needs to reinforce his leverage over the government.

Amid these intricate local and regional calculations, Mikati’s challenge is a singularly difficult one. He has nothing to gain from forming a government of “one color,” since he would end up being marginal in it, while March 14 is reportedly on the verge of refusing to join in a cabinet of national unity. So, for now, we seem to be in a deadlock. But can we expect Hezbollah to give in so easily?

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