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Maya Gebeily

To be or not to be?

A divided March 14 is unsure about Hezbollah’s concessions

Suleiman, Miqati, and Berri

Lebanon’s political leaders have been particularly optimistic this week. From Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri to longtime Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, politicians have been busily reassuring their constituents that a cabinet formation bringing together rival March 8 and March 14 coalitions is imminent. Berri, today, said that a new cabinet could be announced within 48 hours. But how close, really, is Lebanon’s political class to reaching an agreement? And, amid the numerous proposals that have been floated in the media, what has each side offered to compromise on?  

 

Tremendous progress on the cabinet formation has apparently been made following renewed joint efforts by Speaker Berri and Progressive Socialist Party head Walid Jumblatt. The two leaders have recently been pushing for an 8-8-8 proposal whereby March 8 and March 14 each get eight ministers, with the last third left for centrists. Future Movement head Hariri has already signaled his tentative approval of the plan, and Hezbollah has issued quiet acquiescence despite their previous preference for a 9-9-6 formula.

 

It is Hezbollah’s shift in particular that could represent a significant change, and analysts attribute it to pressure exerted by President Michel Suleiman. The head of state’s threats to form a fait accompli government, populated by technocrats, were seen as incredibly unfavorable by Hezbollah.

 

“[Hezbollah] felt there was going to be a fait accompli government, and it prefers to have a joint government,” said Qassem Qassir, a Lebanese analyst familiar with Hezbollah. Indeed, sources close to the party indicated that the formation of a fait accompli cabinet would draw Hezbollah out into the streets, with the intent to stop a neutral cabinet by any means, “even if it meant storming the Grand Serail.”

 

Despite the ominous threats, Suleiman didn’t back down – which appears to have pushed the group to not only accept an 8-8-8 formula, but to also agree to a number of demands made by the Saudi-backed Future Movement. So far, the March 8 coalition has ostensibly agreed to Future’s demands that no coalition hold veto power and cabinet portfolios be rotated. Future’s – and March 14’s – outstanding conditions include accepting the Baabda Declaration as a ministerial statement for the new government.

 

Many, though, are unconvinced about just how much Hezbollah is giving up. “Hezbollah doesn’t make compromises. It makes tactical decisions,” said MP Mustapha Alloush, a member of Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc. He told NOW that March 14 shouldn’t be satisfied until Hezbollah actually withdraws from Syria, agrees to other government statement, and drops its support for the “army-people-resistance” trifecta. For Alloush, these are the issues of substance that Hezbollah has yet to actually address.

 

According to a source close to the Lebanese Forces, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the press, this lack of substance is precisely why LF chief Samir Geagea has yet to issue his agreement to the proposal being advocated by Berri and Jumblatt. Geagea is waiting for assurances from Hezbollah that the group will either withdraw from Syrian battlefields, drop their “army-people-resistance” formula, or accept the Baabda declaration as a ministerial statement. After a staunch statement today by Berri, none of these demands seem likely to be fulfilled. Qassir, on the other hand, finds that the Maronite leader’s stance is nothing but posturing, telling NOW that Geagea is merely holding out for a bigger role in the new government.

 

Whatever his reasons, Geagea’s stance has created a somewhat awkward rift between him and Hariri, who has been working with Berri and Jumblatt on their proposal. Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan reiterated today that the LF refused to join a government with Hezbollah, just as Future MP Atef Mjdalani was praising progress in government formation.

 

Despite the public rift, insiders say the different positions wouldn’t lead to a formal rupture within March 14. The LF source told NOW that within March 14, the decision is that Hariri wouldn’t enter a government without Geagea’s LF. Alloush, who earlier acknowledged that joining the government without the LF would be suicide, agreed: “Let’s take them at their word: if they said they’d only enter a government together, then let’s accept what they say.”

 

Nevertheless, Hariri’s apparent receptiveness to Jumblatt and Berri’s proposal has March 14 members and allies worried. Former March 14 MP Mosbah al-Ahdab warned the anti-Assad coalition that going along with this government proposal would put Lebanon back under “Iranian-Syrian tutelage,” and former Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi said that March 14 should not join a cabinet with Hezbollah as long as the latter continues to fight in Syria.

 

Their clear disagreement with Future’s policy begs the question: Why has Hariri been so receptive towards the proposal, if his March 14 allies aren’t? Qassir chalked it up to regional decisions, telling NOW that American, European, Vatican, and Saudi governments all agreed that a government should be formed in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, who has close ties with Hariri’s Future Movement, in turn “exerted pressure in order to create a government with the participation of Hezbollah,” Qassir said.

 

The LF source attributed it to a personal decision by Hariri, who he said failed to capitalize on Hezbollah’s feeling of being cornered and opted for compromise over confrontation. He told NOW that a “regional decision” to form a government in Lebanon hadn’t been made, since American and European governments were being very careful not to pressure their allies in Lebanon.

 

As the negotiations continue, the possibility of a fait accompli government remains alive. Last week, Suleiman announced that should March 8 and March 14 fail to come to an agreement by January 20, he would green-light a fait accompli government against Hezbollah’s wishes. Alloush sees this as a distinct possibility and threw cold water on the notion that a joint government would be formed within the next few days.

 

“The media close to Nabih Berri and March 8 is hinting that the situation has gotten to a point where there’s a full agreement [on a joint cabinet],” Alloush said. “But that’s not true.” 

President Suleiman, Caretaker PM Miqati, and Speaker Berri have been stuck in the government formation process since last March. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

"'[Hezbollah] felt there was going to be a fait accompli government, and it prefers to have a joint government.'"