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February 21, 2014
A government has been formed in Lebanon after 11 months of uncertainty and political maneuvering. Warring (figuratively and, at times, literally) Lebanese political factions have agreed to form a unity government composed of 24 cabinet ministers led by Prime Minister Tammam Salam. Though most Lebanese will be looking to the new cabinet for solutions to domestic problems, the reality is that domestic concerns, be they economic or security related, are likely to continue to be affected a great deal by what goes on in neighboring Syria and across the region.
Early this week, a Gulf Today editorial sounded an upbeat note about the formation of the new cabinet, pointing out in the process that one of the government’s main priorities should be the upcoming presidential elections: “After nearly a year of political wrangling during which the war in neighbouring Syria aggravated tensions, a 24-member government has been formed in Lebanon under Prime Minister Tammam Salam and this is heartening news for the international community....As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon emphasises, given the severity of the security, humanitarian and economic challenges facing Lebanon, it will be important for the new government to be able, without delay, to act effectively to address such issues with the full support of all parties. Lebanon’s political leaders should now build on the constructive engagement that led to the formation of the new government. They should also ensure that the country’s forthcoming presidential election is held peacefully and successfully within the timeframe set by law.”
For others, the creation of the cabinet was welcome because it provided a chance to take a breather after years of instability and perhaps offer some peace among the sectarian factions. Joyce Karam makes that argument in an op-ed for Al Arabiya where she points out that: “While the new cabinet is a team of bitter rivals and doesn’t promise a big agenda, it gives Lebanon a chance to ease tension and build stability away from Syria’s turmoil....The Syrian conflict, however, appears to have changed Hezbollah’s calculus at a time when the war’s spillover and the resulting sectarian divide are becoming costly for both Lebanon and the powerful Shia party....As Hezbollah continues to fight in Syria, it hopes in Lebanon ‘s national unity government will help in containing the sectarian tension, and in reaching out to the Lebanese Sunnis.’”
It is important, however, to understand the forces behind the decision of the disparate political forces to come together at this particular time. For The Daily Star’s (Lebanon) editor in chief Michael Young the answer lies outside rather than inside Lebanon: “The Cabinet certainly reflects the nature of the political and confessional system, for good and evil, but it is far less certain that an agreement became possible because the Lebanese parties alone decided that an 11-month vacuum was intolerable. Clearly, regional governments wanted to calm the volatile Lebanese situation....Salam’s government will not have an election law to worry about; that headache will likely occupy the government that comes after the presidential election. But in much the same way that Hezbollah sought a government to create the mood allowing Sleiman to be replaced, it may seek to use the new government to lay the groundwork for future harmony over an election law because, as things stand, no alignment can unilaterally impose a law.”
While there are reasons to be optimistic, a recent The National (UAE) editorial suggests that for those who have followed the unfolding of events in the region, the difficult choices still lie ahead: “The new prime minister, Tammam Salam, faces a near-impossible mission to continue this level of political harmony while simultaneously seeking to end the worsening security situation and begin work tackling the many socio-economic challenges facing his country....This schism will continue to affect Lebanese politics, inhibiting the ability and effectiveness of those who seek to get beyond immediate issues of stability and security so they can begin to tackle the nation’s real problems and help foster economic prosperity. Within this context, how ought one to react to the formation of a government in Lebanon? Ending the stalemate is certainly a step forward, but it is one step in a very long journey. Nobody believes Lebanon’s challenges will be solved simply by getting all the parties to sit around a table, but that is at least a place to start.”
Hezbollah’s role remains one of the main concerns, especially given the instability in Syria. It is not clear to everyone how Hezbollah can continue to maintain its overt support of the Assad regime, while at least pretending to play a constructive role within Lebanon: “one can only expect more political turbulence in Lebanon. Hezbollah is part of a government in which most members support the Baabda Declaration, namely the exact opposite of the party’s involvement in Syria. The longer that Hezbollah maintains its open-ended, ill-defined commitment to war abroad, the longer that Lebanon’s politics will suffer from tension and debilitating stalemate.”
The reality of the conflict in Syria, in fact, has introduced new variables to Lebanon’s already complicated political equation. In a recent Gulf News editorial raising the specter of a growing al-Qaeda presence in the country, the point is made is that the terrorist organization has now emerged as a potential wrecker of a fragile political consensus: “Two deadly car bombs in Beirut on Wednesday were a direct challenge to the new government under Prime Minister Tammam Salam....Lebanon’s fragile peace is in danger of vanishing as the terrible violence from Syria spills over into its daily political life. Until now, Al Qaida has had a very modest presence in Lebanon, although there are many other groups with violent skills at their disposal. However, these bombs seem to indicate that Al Qaida and its allies in Lebanon are taking a more active position....The continuing bombings linked to the Syrian war have left Lebanon on the edge and all politicians in power will need to focus on rebuilding the essential national consensus that will carry the country through this crisis despite its deep sectarian divides.”
But political scientist Tamirace Fakhoury remains hopeful that Lebanon can follow the example of other countries, like Northern Ireland, that have built durable state institutions under difficult conditions. Recognizing the ‘Sisyphean’ tasks for the new Lebanese government, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera, Fakhoury argues “Scholars interested in the questions of institutionalism and constitutional designs in power-sharing studies should seek to produce research on how Lebanon's political system can better respond to crises while strengthening its democratic potential....Though Lebanon is bound to be affected by the regional setting, we have the political agency to craft our political system and thereby better respond to external strains and channel the divisive drives of sectarianism.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.