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memri
February 19, 2014 No.
1071

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam's New Government: A Compromise Between Rival Factions

Introduction

Ten months after he was tasked by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman with forming a new government in the country, on February 15, 2014, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced that the new government had been established. It includes nearly all of the country's political factions, except for Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces party, which is part of the March 14 Forces. This government, which comprises 24 ministers (8 from the March 14 Forces, 8 from the March 8 Forces, and 8 from the center bloc, which includes representatives of President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Tammam Salam and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt) – is expected to serve until President Suleiman's term ends on May 25, 2014.

The Salam government replaces that of former prime minister Najib Mikati, which was in effect formed by Hizbullah in 2011. This government, which became a caretaker government after Mikati's resignation in March 2013, had excluded the March 14 Forces.[1]

The new government, which includes elements from both the March 8 and March 14 Forces, reflects Hizbullah's realization, arrived at mostly over the past year, that it is incapable of ruling the country by itself and of keeping the March 14 Forces – especially the sizeable Sunni Al-Mustaqbal stream – out of the government.

What made it possible to establish the new government were concessions by Lebanon's two rival camps – the March 14 Forces headed by Al-Mustaqbal and the March 8 Forces headed by Hizbullah – each of which backed down from conditions it had set since Salam’s appointment. The March 14 Forces, except for Geagea, dropped their demand that Hizbullah remove its fighters from Syria, and Hizbullah dropped its demand to be given more than a third of the government's portfolios – which would have given it veto power on some government decisions. At the same time, the sides agreed to discuss the government's fundamental principles following its establishment, and to present them to parliament for approval, in accordance with the constitution – even though in recent months the March 14 Forces have been demanding that these fundamental principles would be agreed prior to the establishment of the government.[2]

In the coming month, the March 14 Forces and the March 8 Forces will need to discuss several major points of contention, such as the inclusion or exclusion of the issue of the resistance – that is, whether or not to legitimize Hizbullah's weapons – in the fundamental principles. Another contentious issue is the inclusion in the principles of the Baabda Declaration, drawn up by President Suleiman in June 2012; Article 12 of this declaration sets out Lebanon's neutrality in the struggle between regional and international axes, and the March 14 Forces claim that this requires Hizbullah fighters to withdraw from Syria.


Tammam Salam’s government (image: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 16, 2014)

Why The Salam Government Was Formed

There were a number of reasons why the sides dropped conditions and demands for forming a government; nearly all of them are related to Lebanon's political and security stability.

Fear Of A Vacuum In State Institutions

The main, and most pressing, reason appears to be the imminence of the presidential election; the campaigns are set to begin March 25, 2014. Many internal Lebanese elements, as well as regional and international ones, were apprehensive that in the continued absence of a government these elections will not take place, causing the regime to slide into chaos. State institutions could cease to function, which, in turn, would lead to a deterioration of the already shaky security situation. In the absence of a new government and president, there would have been two main options: Either presidential authority would have had to be transferred to the Mikati interim government – which as mentioned lacked March 14 Forces and Sunni representation, an outcome feared by the March 14 Forces – or President Suleiman would have appointed, before the end of his term, as he threatened, a technocrat government, an outcome feared by Hizbullah.

All this was going on while the Lebanese parliament, which in June 2013 extended its own term until October 2014, has not convened in months, because several large factions are boycotting it, each for its own reasons.[3]

Joint Struggle Against Terrorism And Jihadi Organizations

Also pushing the sides to agree on the formation of a government was the need to combat Sunni jihadi organizations that have infiltrated Lebanon in the past year, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra. These groups have joined with local extremist Sunni groups and some Syrian refugees in Lebanon to retaliate against Hizbullah for fighting in Syria alongside Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's forces. In recent months, they have carried out numerous suicide attacks against Hizbullah targets, and particularly against the Shi'ite population that is its stronghold of support, in the southern Dahiya in Beirut and in northeastern Lebanon, and have vowed to continue the attacks. This is an unprecedented threat to Hizbullah, and the organization finds itself in unfamiliar territory.

Hizbullah, in its struggle against Sunni jihadi organizations in Lebanon, requires the cooperation of Al-Mustaqbal – Lebanon's largest Sunni stream – since such cooperation would grant legitimacy to the struggle, as it would no longer be a Shi'ite-Sunni confrontation but rather a joint Shi'ite-Sunni campaign against extremist Sunni streams.

In addition to the pressing security needs, Hizbullah also wants to alleviate sectarian tension in the country, which has reached new heights, and fears that the country's extremist Sunnis streams could gain strength and thus weaken Al-Mustaqbal, which is considered representative of moderate Sunnis. These Sunni extremists, some of whom are armed, are based in Tripoli, Sidon, and the Beqa Valley, and they constitute a powerful and uncompromising Sunni rival of Hizbullah; if forced to confront them, Hizbullah might again be compelled to turn its weapons on elements within Lebanon, and for now it does not want to do this.

Al-Mustaqbal also seeks to combat these extremist Sunni streams, as they are undermining its status and influence among Lebanon's Sunnis; thus, at this point in time, Hizbullah and Al-Mustaqbal have a shared goal in fighting these groups.

This Al-Mustaqbal trend is in line with a recent decision by Saudi Arabia – the patron of Al-Mustaqbal leader Sa'd Al-Hariri – to fight Islamic extremism and terrorism, and also with a ban issued in early February 2014 by Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz against Saudi citizens going to join the jihad in Syria.

A new government can support Lebanon's stability in several other aspects as well: Disagreements can now be discussed by the government, and parliament can again convene. In addition, the new government can receive and distribute international humanitarian aid to the many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and also receive international funding and other support for the Lebanese army.

The New Government's Weaknesses And Its Advantages And Disadvantages For Each Side

The Salam government has several obvious weak points: Its fundamental principles are not clearly set out, and the lack of consensus on them could lead to its fall; its term is to be short – only until May, when the next president takes office – and it is not clear what will come next; and, much like its predecessors, it will be affected by regional elements and impacted by what happens in Syria.

However, an examination of the current advantages and disadvantages for each side in the new government shows that although both Hizbullah and Al-Mustaqbal had to make substantial concessions, they also both gained. While Hizbullah had to relinquish its demand for more than a third of the government portfolios, which would have given it veto power, it also successfully prevented the formation of a technocrat government that would not have included it, and is now part of the government even though its forces continue to fight in Syria. In addition, in a February 16, 2014 speech, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah hinted that his organization had received other “guarantees” in return for dropping its demand for a power of veto in the government. He said: “Following consultations between Hizbullah and Amal, we agreed to make do with one Shi’ite minister less. The guarantees we request can be achieved in a different way.”[4] Nasrallah did not elaborate on this point, but the pro-Hizbullah daily Al-Safir suggested that the March 8 Forces would exercise a power of veto in the government by means of the Shi’ite minister representing President Suleiman, who would in effect serve as a representative of the March 8 Forces.[5] Likewise, the "guarantees" to which Nasrallah was referring could very likely be in the form of Prime Minister Salam himself – who in a February 19 interview with the Al-Mustaqbal network declared, "If eight of the members of the government from a certain bloc step down, then I will be the ninth."[6] By this, he meant that if eight ministers from the March 8 camp quit, then the government would fall.

Al-Mustaqbal, for its part, had to drop its condition that Hizbullah remove its forces from Syria before it becomes part of a government, and also backed down from its demand that the fundamental principles be drawn up before any government was established. However, it received several important portfolios in the new government, including the Interior, Justice, and Communications Ministries, and successfully appointed to various posts individuals whom Hizbullah had long opposed, including former internal security forces director Ashraf Rifi as justice minister. It is also possible that Al-Mustaqbal has even received guarantees that its leader Sa'd Al-Hariri will head the next government.

Other elements are also benefiting from the new government: Free Patriotic Movement leader and Hizbullah ally Michel Aoun received prominent portfolios and might even have obtained a consensus that he will be the next president; President Suleiman has successfully delivered on his promise to establish a government before the end of his term; Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is pleased with the broad government, after working hard for its establishment; and Samir Geagea, who is not part of the government, has maintained his principles and announced that he might join if its fundamental principles meet with his approval.

Michel Aoun, Sa'd Al-Hariri Grow Closer

Another interesting aspect of this government concerns the increased closeness of Michel Aoun, who is an ally of Hizbullah, to Saudi Arabia and Al-Mustaqbal. Apparently, Aoun's ambition to be Lebanon's next president, coupled with the political disappointments he has endured due to his alliance with Hizbullah and the March 8 Forces, have led him to increased openness towards some who until recently were considered his rivals. It seems that Aoun has realized that, without the consent of the March 14 Forces, led by Al-Mustaqbal, his chances of becoming president are slim. Contacts between the Aoun and Al-Hariri camps, which began as low-level, have developed into direct phone conversations between the two,[7] and the two even met in Rome.[8] This warming in relations almost certainly contributed to the formation of the new government; apparently the two have straightened out some of the differences that were holding it up. Furthermore, Aoun claims he served as chief mediator between Al-Hariri and Nasrallah.[9]

Did Saudi Arabia, Iran Play A Part In Formation of Government?

As in all previous Lebanese governments, regional factors were also in play in the establishment of this one. It appears that following international pressure, Saudi Arabia and Iran gave their consent to Al-Hariri and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, respectively, to establish the new government, though neither sponsor pushed hard for its establishment. In fact, it is assessed that this government was established as part of a general agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran not only regarding Lebanon but regarding a range of regional issues.[10] It is also thought that Iran made concessions to Saudi Arabia in Lebanon and elsewhere to prepare the ground for an arrangement in Syria.[11]

It should be noted that this is the first Lebanese government since 1976 in which the Syrian regime has no part – as noted by sources in the French embassy in Beirut[12] – which could indicate a new trend in Lebanon reflecting stronger Iranian and weaker Syrian influence there.

Sunni Public: Fury At, Accusations Of Treason Against Al-Hariri

In Lebanon, both the Sunni and the Shi'ite communities, especially the pro-Hizbullah Shi’ites, are displeased with the new government, each for its own reasons. Many of the Sunnis, particularly in Tripoli, Sidon and the Beqa, have felt marginalized and have blamed Al-Hariri for this. They claim that Hizbullah and the Shi'ites are now killing Sunnis in both Syria and in Lebanon – in Syria with their fight against the anti-Assad rebels and in Lebanon with the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, the events of May 7, 2008 (Hizbullah’s takeover of Beirut), the 2012 assassination of Lebanese internal security information branch director Wissam Al-Hassan, and the assassination two months ago of Al-Hariri's political advisor Mohamad Chatah. Now, after a months-long Al-Mustaqbal anti-Hizbullah propaganda campaign, and after its staunch refusal to join a government with Hizbullah unless and until the latter withdrew from Syria, Al-Mustaqbal has dropped this demand. This has astonished many Sunnis, who feel that by doing so Al-Mustaqbal and Sa'd Al-Hariri have legitimized the murderer, Hizbullah. They were all the more shocked at the location and timing of Al-Hariri’s announcement that he was willing to serve in the same government as Hizbullah. He announced this in an interview he gave at the margins of debates by the international tribunal investigating the assassination of his father, Rafiq Al-Hariri, which began in January 2014.[13] A few days later, on January 20, 2014, Al-Hariri told Radio Europe 1: “I will never forget or forgive [my father’s assassination], but Lebanon is more important than me and there is a need to form a government so that the presidential elections can be held.”[14]

Extremist Sunni groups claimed that Al-Hariri was betraying the Sunnis, and even his own father, to gain a seat in the government, and some even rejected him as representative of the Sunnis.[15] These extremist groups, particularly field commanders in Tripoli heading armed militias involved in clashes with Alawites and Hizbullah supporters in the city, are also afraid for their own fates following Al-Hariri's declaration that anyone harming the city's security should be beheaded. Apparently, there is a rift in the Sunni community, which has now escalated to real fears of assassination of Sunni officials and to increased security measures.[16] It does, however, seem that the appointment of former internal security director Ashraf Rifi, who is from Tripoli, as justice minister was aimed at reassuring Sunnis, some of whom have good relations with Rifi.

Disappointment Among Hizbullah Supporters

It seems that Hizbullah supporters are also disappointed with the way the organization joined the government, and especially with the relinquishing of important dossiers to the hawkish branch of Al-Mustaqbal, which includes Ashraf Rifi, known for his criticism of Hizbullah. This was expressed in a speech given by Hassan Nasrallah on February 16, the day after the new government was announced, in which he attempted to calm his supporters by saying: "It is natural that there are disagreements among allies" and "we do not feel that there is anything wrong with the formation of the government."[17]

The disappointment was also reflected in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which supports Hizbullah. On February 17, 2014, two days after the formation of the government, it posted many articles that attempted to convince Hizbullah supporters that consenting to the formation of the government was a smart move, detailed Hizbullah's achievements in the Salam government, and responded to the criticism voiced in Shi'ite circles over the concessions given by the organization to the March 14 Forces. For example, an article by columnist Sami Kulaib explained that the resistance axis, headed by Syria, is now more important to Hizbullah than internal Lebanese affairs.[18]

Criticism of Hizbullah's consent to the formation of the government was also voiced by known members of the March 8 Forces. Former Druze minister Wiam Wahhab, a known Hizbullah supporter, expressed fury over Hizbullah's concessions,[19] and Jamil Al-Sayyed, another prominent Hizbullah supporter and former head of Lebanese general security, even announced he was severing ties with the March 8 Forces following the establishment of the government.[20] The criticism by these officials, who are known for supporting the Syrian regime, may indicate that Assad, too, is displeased with the Salam government, on whose establishment he apparently had no influence. This assessment is supported by an article in the daily Al-Akhbar, which cites pro- Syrian elements in Lebanon who are furious over the formation of this government. They say that, by agreeing to form a government with Al-Hariri, Hizbullah and Aoun have exonerated him of “his deeds in Syria”.[21]

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[2] The Lebanese constitution requires that a government's fundamental principles be brought to parliament's approval within a month after its establishment.

[3] The Lebanese constitution states that the president needs the approval of two-thirds of parliament.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.

[5] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 20, 2014.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 13, 2014.

[8] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 18, 2014.

[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 18, 2014. It should be noted that the Al-Mustaqbal daily confirmed, citing a senior source the Al-Mustaqbal faction, that Aoun and Al-Hariri had met, but denied that Aoun had mediated between Al-Hariri and Nasrallah. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 18, 2014.

[10] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 15, 2014.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.

[13] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 18, 2014.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 21, 2014.

[15] Lebanondebate.com, January 18, 2014.

[16] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 25, 2014.

[17] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.

[18] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.

[19] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.

[20] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 16, 2014.

[21] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 17, 2014.