Lebanon’s new cabinet has a strong Christian presence, with the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the Free Patriotic Movement all awarded key ministries. This phenomenon signals a shift in strategy by the Future Movement, the Democratic Gathering and March 8 in preparation for the 2009 legislative elections, where the main battle waged will be for the Christian vote, the outcome of which will have a direct impact on the Sunni-Shia power struggle. In fact, it may even determine the future stability of Lebanon.
Christian ministers from the Future Movement and the Democratic Gathering have been supplanted in the government by Christian ministers representing major Christian parties. The Lebanese Forces got two ministers: Ibrahim Najjar for Justice, despite a number of objections from March 8, and Antoine Karam for Environment. The Kataeb got Elie Marouni for Tourism, thereby filling the political void left by murdered Pierre Gemayel and Antoine Ghanem.
The Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) share is made up of Issam Abu Jamra as deputy prime minister, Gebran Bassil as minister of telecommunications, and Mario Aoun as minister of social affairs.
On top of these key portfolios, those of the ministries of Interior Affairs and Defense were also given to Christians, Ziad Baroud and Elias Murr, both nominated by President Sleiman. Christians are also represented in other significant ministries, such as Information, Agriculture and the Displaced.
The only group that was not equally represented in the government was Qornet Shehwan, who commissioned Nassib Lahoud, the man said to be brought to the new cabinet as a compromise candidate to end the dilemma of selecting either Nayla Mouawad, Boutros Harb or Mansour Ghanem al-Bon. This new Christian lineup is not one solid front. The battle for votes has already started, and alliances are beginning to take shape. In the Metn, an alliance between Michel Murr and Tashnaq has already been officially declared.
Will FPM leader Michel Aoun eventually be part of this alliance? Murr has said that there is no bad blood between himself and Aoun after the latter ended his alliance with the Change and Reform bloc earlier this year, and on Wednesday, MP Hagop Pakradounian said Murr had made “positive steps” toward the 2009 elections. “We are allies of General Aoun and will remain so, and the allies of MP Murr and will remain so,” he added.
On the other hand, Murr and Amin Gemayel met Tuesday night over dinner in Bikfaya, after which no statements were made.
Although Murr is expected to eventually pay for his son’s reappointment as minister of defense, he insists that he will not enter a list with Aoun alone, as he wants to include key local politicians, as well as his son, Minister Elias Murr. Murr also seems to be waiting for the president’s election battle plan. If the president decides to support certain lists in Christian areas, Murr might run independently with a list supported by the president, instead of allying with Aoun or Gemayel. As for the Kataeb, it seems Sami Gemayel, son of former President Amin Gemayel and brother of slain Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, will run in the Metn.
Zahle is set to witness a more vicious battle between Elie Marouni and Elias Skaff, both senior ministers in the new cabinet. After the release of LF Leader Samir Geagea in 2005, the Christian power balance in Zahle changed in favor of March 14. Also, recent security incidents in Zahle and the Bekaa may have a negative impact on Skaff’s candidacy.
Moreover, Christian areas are witnessing a new political trend. Although his position is still vague, President Michel Sleiman is expected to present himself as a new Christian leader by supporting a “third line,” a move that threatens to undermine Michel Aoun’s claim as Lebanon’s “Christian leader.”
In his inaugural speech, Sleiman emphasized demands and concerns that are significant to the Christian community in Lebanon. Other than rejecting the naturalization of the Palestinians and facilitating the return of the displaced, he highlighted administrative reform, decentralization, empowering the presidency and ensuring better Christian representation in high-ranking civil positions. These concerns have been the Christians’ main demands for many years, but were ignored during the age of Syrian hegemony.
As the next Christian parliamentarians will be determined mostly by the Christian vote, these issues are going to be underlined in the months preceding the elections. The other sects of both camps would try to support their allies’ guidelines in an attempt to empower them, but they, namely the Future Movement and Hezbollah, wouldn’t be able to impose other codes on the Christian street.
The Christians, because of their division, will be the community that will determine the future of Lebanon, including the next government, the next ministerial statement and the next policies. While the Sunni vote is more or less guaranteed for the Future Movement, the Druze vote will probably go to Jumblatt’s list, while the Shia vote is in Hezbollah’s bag, he who wins the Christians wins Lebanon.