It took 252 days for Saad Hariri to finalize his new government lineup. While established political interests dominate the Council of Ministers, the balance of power has clearly shifted both across and within parties. Consider first the new cabinet lineup: Ten seats were allocated to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the president, which includes Tashnag and the Lebanese Democratic Party (six for FPM and four for the president); five to the Future Movement; four to the Lebanese Forces (LF); three each to Hizballah and the Amal Movement; a pair to the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP); and one each for Azm, the Consultative Gathering, and the Marada Movement. Apart from the prime minister and deputy prime minister, twenty-two ministers were assigned permanent ministerial portfolios and six ministers were allocated ad hoc minister of state portfolios. Of note are the four women appointed to the cabinet, including Minister of Interior and Municipalities Raya El Hassan and Minister of Energy and Water Nada Boustani.
Control is also divided based on the power and prestige of cabinet portfolios. The FPM and president received the lion’s share of seats—including key ministries—while the Future Movement’s share dwindled as a result of its poor performance in the parliamentary election under a proportional representation system. However, Future did manage to retain the interior and telecommunications ministries. The PSP requested three cabinet seats but was allotted two, this after rejecting a third seat going to its arch-rival, Talal Arslan’s Lebanese Democratic Party. The LF managed to double the size of its parliamentary bloc but could not transform that win into the five cabinet seats that it desired. Instead, the LF had to settle for four seats and less weighty portfolios, including administrative reform, labor, and social affairs. The country’s two Shi‘i parties shared six seats equally. Amal maintained control of the Ministry of Finance while Hizballah took control of the Ministry of Health—despite US objections—by appointing a supporter rather than a party member as minister.
Pundits have rushed to label this government “Hizballah-led” since the party’s staunch allies and apparent allies hold slightly less than two-thirds of cabinet files. While critics got the math right, their understanding of Lebanese political chemistry seems off. The three major actors in the ostensibly pro-Hizballah camp—FPM leader and Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah—do not have a history of getting along. Bassil and Berri can hardly bring themselves to seek out common political ground. Not only that, there is seemingly little trust between Nasrallah and Bassil. Hizballah’s insistence on representing Sunni March 8 MP interests in the cabinet was not primarily intended to weaken Hariri but rather to prevent Bassil’s ministers from holding a one-third blocking vote, which they appeared eager to secure. It took three months—from November 2018, when the government was about to be formed, to February 2019—for Bassil to realize that he could not outmaneuver Hizballah while granting one of the president’s seats to Hasan Mourad (one of the six “March 8” Sunni MPs) under the condition that he would vote with the FPM. Reaching a dead end, a compromise had to be struck: Mourad would attend the Strong Lebanon Bloc’s meeting but vote according to the wishes of the Consultative Gathering. In actuality, this “majority” or “Hizballah-allied” camp is not as unified as portrayed. Furthermore, Hizballah has shown little interest in being the vanguard of national policy-making (save for legitimacy of its weapons) from its position in the government—a government which faces a range of challenges that the Party of God need not take responsibility for creating or addressing—particularly now that Washington seems to have a close eye on its finances.
Competition for seats was not confined among political parties but also within. This was most obvious in the FPM, as Bassil managed to remove rivals and get his allies in place. For instance, he replaced Raed Khoury with Mansour Bteich at the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade, brought in Albert Serhan at the Ministry of Justice and managed to relegate Salim Jreisatti to minister of state status. Hariri also used this occasion to get his house in further order and sideline the old guard. Most noticeably, he sent former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk home in favor of loyalist Raya Hasan. He also had electoral debts to pay by appointing Jamal Jarah at the Ministry of Information and Violette Safadi as a minister of state for economic empowerment of women and youth.
In fact, two-thirds of the twenty-two ministerial portfolios remained with the same party and only seven changed hands, which include industry, labor, information, displaced, culture, health, and OMSAR. Out of the fifteen ministerial portfolios that remained with the same political party, nine ministries had new faces. In other words, political parties have opted to maintain their positions in the cabinet lineup as much as possible while also going through a changing of the guard.
In addition to twenty ministerial portfolios, six new ministers of state were named to suit the demands of politicians. It is not clear what resources they will be given and how their responsibilities, if assigned, will not conflict with that of other ministries. Three such cases include the Ministry of State for the Economic Empowerment of Women and Youth and the Ministry of Youth and Sport; the Ministry of State for Foreign Trade and the Ministry of Economy and Trade; and OMSAR and the Ministry of State for Information Technology.
While it is premature to pass judgment on how effective this government will be, it has the major responsibility of salvaging the country from an economic crisis. Already, it seems apparent that this cabinet comprises individuals with markedly disparate, narrow political interests and simmering political grudges. The real test, it seems, is whether those entrusted with navigating Lebanon through difficult times can spare some of their attention paid to otherwise petty political games for matters of true national interest.
[This article was originally published by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies as "'Brand New Cabinet,' Some New Faces, Same Old Horse Trading."]