All stable on the Lebanese front? New government sparks hopes of political progress
Lebanon announced it formed a government on Saturday after more than 330 days of deadlock between the various political blocs.
The announcement was made by Secretary General of the Council of Ministers Suheil Nouji in the afternoon after a meeting was conducted between Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and other officials at the Baabda Presidential Palace outside of Beirut.
The final line-up of an encompassing 24-member cabinet include: Tammam Salam as Prime Minister, Samir Mokbel as Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Nouhad al-Machnouk as Interior Minister, Sejaan Kazzi as Labour Minister, Boutros Harb as Telecommunication Minister, Gebran Bassil as the Foreign Affairs Minister, Alain Hakim as Minister of Economy and Trade, Elias Bou Saab as the Education Minister, Alice Chabtini as Minister of Displaced, and Michel Faraon as Tourism Minister.
Arthur Nazarian will head the Energy Ministry, Ghazi Zaiter for Public Works and Transport, Ashraf Rifi for the Justice Ministry, Remond Arayji as Culture Minister, Abdel Matlad Hennawi for Youth and Sports, Hassan al-Haj Hassan for Industry, and both Nabil de Freij and Mohammed Fneish will serve as State Ministers.
The Finance Minister position goes to Ali Hassan Khalil, while Wael Abou Faour will head the Health Ministry, Ramzi Jreij as Information Minister, Akram Chouhayeb for Agriculture, Rashid Derbas as Social Affairs Minister, and Mohammed Mashnouq as Environment Minister
After the announcement, Salam vowed that the new cabinet, "will be capable of holding the presidential elections on time and pass a new electoral law."
"After 10 months of efforts, of patience, a government protecting the national interest is born," he said.
"It is a unifying government and the best formula to allow Lebanon to confront challenges."
A Flurry of Midnight Meetings
Efforts to form a cabinet were at full throttle over the weekend, intent on resolving the key problem of who should be appointed as Minister of Interior. This dispute had almost blown all progress made in the previous days to put together a cabinet lineup acceptable by all rival factions.
Late into Friday night, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam was still asking President Michel Suleiman and Speaker Nabih Berri to stay awake, as he was planning to announce the formation of his cabinet at night. Salam wanted to have the official group portrait of the new government taken on Saturday noon, and hold the cabinet’s first session before Berri’s scheduled visit to Kuwait.
MP Walid Jumblatt also wanted to get the official decree forming the cabinet issued. Jumblatt wants the negotiations to have a happy outcome as soon as possible.
President Suleiman, as per Salam’s wishes, stayed awake along with some of his advisors and senior staff. Berri, meanwhile, gave up in the end, and told people who were in contact with him that he was going to sleep.
The negotiations stalled and almost collapsed earlier on Friday, though many Lebanese had expected the government to be announced yesterday morning. Things came to a head when Berri and ally Hezbollah vetoed the nomination of retired General Ashraf Rifi as the new Minister of interior, but due to Jumblatt’s mediation, progress was made on this matter by Friday evening.
According to reports, the head of the Future bloc MP Fouad Siniora had called Tammam Salam late on Thursday, to get an update on the cabinet negotiations. Salam told Siniora that there was a lot of progress, after which Siniora affirmed Future’s demand of assigning the interior ministry to General Rifi.
Siniora and Berri also spoke. Berri objected to appointing either General Rifi or Future MP Ahmad Fatfat in the post, but Siniora retorted by saying, “You have named the ministers you want, so we shall name the ministers we want. We have already conceded a lot of ground on the subject of the government.” But Berri reiterated his objection, telling Siniora, “We have already agreed on not appointing any provocative figures.”
Dialogue between the two leaders ended with both men sticking to their guns. Then on Friday morning, Salam reached out to Berri, who reaffirmed his stance and told Salam, “Our position has nothing to do with Hezbollah’s. This was your decision; from the outset, you said you would propose acceptable figures for the post of interior minister.”
For his part, Ahmad Hariri, secretary general of the Future Movement, restated Future’s insistence on putting Rifi in the Ministry of Interior. Complicating the situation further, he told reporters, “We will not accept anyone other than General Ashraf Rifi as the minister of interior.” Leading figures in March 14 were also pressuring Saad Hariri to dig in his heels and insist on Rifi’s nomination.
As the Interior Ministry hitch showed no signs of easing, almost completely upending all that has been agreed upon throughout previous negotiations, Jumblatt intervened through Minister Wael Abu Faour. The Druze politician proposed that Rifi be excluded from the Interior portfolio, and giving it to another figure from Future that would be acceptable to all factions. According to March 8 sources, Hezbollah and Amal agreed, saying, “We have no problem with any name from the Future Movement, with the exception of Rifi and Ahmad Fatfat.”
Abu Faour conveyed March 8’s position to Salam and Hariri. The discussions then shifted to “finding” a new ministry to appease Rifi, and it was suggested to appoint him as Minister of Labor, instead of Rony Areiji, of the Marada Party. Salam proposed this to Hariri, who then offered Rifi either the Labor or Social Affairs portfolio – to which Rifi responded by saying that he was not seeking a ministerial post or a consolation prize.
Hariri told Jumblatt that he was prepared to make a deal on the interior ministry, but that he needed some time to come up with his nominees for the post, and to work things out with the “hawks” in his party, who are opposed to any concessions to the rival faction, and who “do not see what good can be achieved in forming a government as such” according to sources close to Hariri.
By Friday night, reports emerged that Hariri intended to nominate MP Nuhad al-Mashnouq for the Interior Ministry, but the names of MP Jamal Jarrah and General Marwan Zein were also floated, the latter being the former director general of the Internal Security Forces and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Subsequent discussions with Salam also focused on implementing the idea of rotating control of ministries among the factions on other portfolios, which would allow Salam to give the labor ministry to Future, instead of the Marada Party. Negotiations continued until the late hours of Friday night to also address this issue, in addition to the question of which portfolios would be given to Hezbollah.
In the meantime, President Michel Suleiman called for “not squandering the opportunity, the positive achievements made, and the climate that has prevailed.” Suleiman also stressed that “accord among the rival factions is better than clinging to narratives, as it can eliminate provocation and tension, and open the door wide to the elimination of the quota-based sharing of power and mutual vetoes, for the sake of the country and the citizens.”