New Cabinet small step toward dialogue

President Michel Sleiman and Salam hold talks in Baabda.

BEIRUT: Despite pertinent divergence among its components, the primary role of the new government will be to create a political atmosphere favorable to negotiation and compromise over an array of issues – chief among them the presidential election – analysts said over the weekend. “This Cabinet works as sort of a political umbrella, its [formation] might not denote any sort of rapprochement between rival groups, but it works for laying the foundations for a conciliatory atmosphere,” Randa Slim, Scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told The Daily Star.

Analysts agreed that looking after the deteriorating security situation and the precarious economy as well as a protracted Syrian refugee crisis are the focal tasks required from the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam. More importantly, one of the government’s main challenges will be to set the stage for the upcoming presidential election.

But experts are not too optimistic about the performance of the new 24-member Cabinet, in light of the depth of political differences among its rival components.

“The Cabinet will have its hands full, for sure, and it is hard to say where it will succeed and where it will fail,” said Bilal Y. Saab, Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “I am lowering my expectations, knowing the objective difficulty of [the] challenges ahead and the depth of the parties’ political differences.”

For Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations, prospects are even more bleak. He argued that Lebanon’s national interest was clearly forgotten.

“Iran, Saudi Arabia and the various Lebanese clans have all placed their men and covered their backs, but this government seems clearly unable to address citizens’ demands and the daunting challenges facing the country, in terms of security, economic development, social justice and refugees,” Bitar said.

Salam announced Saturday his government of “national interest,” bringing together figures from the country’s rival political groups and ending a 10-month stalemate.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, who under the supervision of Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt played a pivotal role in brokering a deal on the government, acknowledged the political split within the Cabinet.

“This Cabinet carries with it the seeds of divisions and also the possibilities of agreement,” he told a gathering organized by the PSP in his hometown, the Western Bekaa town of Rashaya.

According to Saab, the new Cabinet will be tasked with ensuring that the presidential election is held on time and facilitating the drafting of a new electoral law for parliamentary elections.

It will also have to come up with a plan, in consultation with the international community, to revive the economy and deal with the enormous refugee problem caused by the Syrian conflict, Saab added.

Last but not least, Saab said, the government will have to flesh out a security strategy to protect Lebanese society from the growing threat of militant jihadist groups.

The Middle East Institute’s Slim, who maintained that the government was the fruit of a “collusion of interests,” spoke about a “virtual wall” the Lebanese government needs to build between Lebanon and the ongoing violence in Syria.

According to Slim, even the reference to Hezbollah’s arsenal and role in the policy statement that has proven to be problematic in previous Cabinets will be overcome.

She said both camps were interested in a minimum level of stability reigning in the country, adding that the March 14 insistence on acquiring the three security related portfolios – the Interior, Defense and Justice ministries – was not haphazard.

The assassination in December of a key March 14 figure, former Minister Mohammad Shatah, worked as a wake-up call for the coalition, Slim said:

“Shatah’s assassination placed the security of the March 14 coalition on the front burner.”

Conversely, Slim argued that some March 8 parties such as Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement saw an advantage in Future Movement ministers heading key security portfolios, considering that the fight against terror will be spearheaded by Sunnis.

“This in a way will considerably limit friction between Shiites and militant jihadist groups, thus minimizing the effects of the regional Sunni-Shiite tension in Lebanon,” she said.

Slim dubbed as baseless theories circulated in the media suggesting that the birth of a new government only three months away from the May 25 constitutional deadline to elect a new president automatically means that the election will not be held and the country will plunge into a vacuum.

“I actually see the birth of the Tammam Salam Cabinet as a necessary prerequisite for presidential elections,” she added.

Slim noted that Hezbollah wanted a new government in order to bolster domestic security and defuse Sunni-Shiite friction that has reached alarming levels. The leader of the March 14 coalition, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was just as eager, she said.

“Hariri did not want the government of [Former Prime Minister Najib] Mikati to take over executive powers in the event of a presidential void,” she added.

As for outrage expressed by the supporters of both camps following the announcement of the Cabinet’s makeup, Bitar saw it as legitimate and understandable.

“The negative reaction of Lebanon’s public opinion at large is perfectly understandable,” he said. “The Lebanese have waited patiently for 11 months and they have every right to be angry when they see such a mediocre cast and such a blatant sharing of the spoils among those who spent the last few years accusing each other of crimes and high treason.”

Saab and Slim were less bitter, maintaining that both camps had offered major concessions in order for a Cabinet to see the light.

Reiterating that she does not have high optimism for the new government, Slim pointed to the fact that the “no victor, no vanquished” formula has “unfortunately become an entrenched tradition in Lebanese politics.”

For Saab, the biggest challenge facing this Cabinet will be finding a workable balance between the maximalist and polar views of its main antagonists, Hezbollah and the Future Movement.

“The name of the game will be coexistence, despite major differences,” he said.

“If they can manage those differences and the spillover from Syria, it will be considered a success.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 17, 2014, on page 3.




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