Lebanon News

New govt will appease West, preserve aid

BEIRUT: The international community will be able to work with Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s new government, the eventual formation of which left none of the wrangling sides with the upper hand.

Following the parliamentary elections last year, the West feared that Hezbollah would gain an outsized influence in the new government.

But the almost nine months it took President Michel Aoun and Hariri to form a new government ended with no clear winners or losers.

In terms of allocation of ministerial portfolios, the West was primarily concerned that Hezbollah would receive a service-related ministry, such as the Health Ministry.

Reports surfaced that military and other financial aid, mainly from Washington but also Europe, would be jeopardized by this outcome.

Ultimately, Hezbollah did gain the Health Ministry, but in a sign of appeasing the West, it named an individual that is not a member of the party. Hezbollah originally put forth the name of a party member, but ultimately opted for Jamil Jabak.

Though not a part of Hezbollah, Jabak is affiliated with the party and will follow the orders of its leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.

The four so-called sovereign portfolios will remain in the hands of the same political parties: The Foreign and Defense ministries went to the Free Patriotic Movement, the Interior Ministry to Hariri’s Future Movement and the Finance Ministry to Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement. This will be a positive development in ensuring a continuation of the U.S. foreign military financing budget for Lebanon which was close to $291 million in 2018 and is expected to increase by at least $60 million this year.

In addition, the more than $11 billion in pledges from the international community mainly the West and the World Bank looks to be secured as long as the government moves quickly to implement the reforms and laws needed to tap into these funds.

The pledges were made at last year’s CEDRE conference in Paris, where the World Bank pledged $4 billion in soft loans to Lebanon.

It was by far the largest donor at the conference, while other countries and financial institutions promised funds to finance investment and infrastructure projects.

The country’s economic situation will be the most pressing issue for Hariri, Aoun and the ministers.

The mere talk of a new Cabinet Thursday saw Lebanese sovereign dollar bonds jump to their highest rate since the summer of 2018.

That being said, the country is in urgent need of a national budget, and officials must find a way to rein in the country’s increasing, and already staggering, debt. Lebanon has the world’s third-highest debt-to-GDP ratio, with the state currently over $80 billion in debt.

Apart from the economic situation, ministers must now agree on a new Cabinet statement, which will prove controversial in not only its content, but also in the details of its language. The divisive issues of the weapons of Hezbollah’s guerilla army, the need for a national defense strategy and Lebanon’s official relationship with Syria will need to be agreed upon.

The outcome of the formation process, however, means that all sides will need to be ready to make concessions to reach a solution on the Cabinet statement, as they did in forming a government.

Hezbollah is a firm believer in what it calls the “golden tripartite equation” of the “Army, the people and the resistance.”

As with previous governments, this will not make it into the Cabinet statement. Rather, something along the lines of “the right of every Lebanese citizen to resist Israeli occupation” will likely be included.

How Lebanon moves forward with its ties to Syria will also be contentious. Nasrallah, whose party is allied with Iran, previously said the issue would be discussed after a government was formed. FPM leader Gebran Bassil has hinted that Lebanon cannot move ahead on topics such as the Syrian refugee crisis without working with Damascus.

Bassil, who retained his post as foreign minister, also spoke of the need for Lebanon to participate in Syria’s future reconstruction.

However, Hariri, who’s Future Movement was blacklisted as a terrorist organization by President Bashar Assad’s regime earlier this week, is a staunch opponent of talks with the Syrian leader.

The U.S. and Europe will certainly maintain their hard-line stance of not communicating directly with Damascus until a political solution is reached in Syria.

Hariri’s camp, the Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party will side with the West on most issues. Nonetheless, foreign pressure, whether from the West or Iran, did not color the outcome of the government formation.

Rather, the delay in the process was largely an internal issue, as demonstrated when the allocation of a single minister created a deadlock that trammeled progress for months.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 01, 2019, on page 2.

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