For the past 10 months, Lebanon has been without a government. The caretaker cabinet has proved completely incapable of responding to the country’s two major ongoing challenges — the influx of 900,000 Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war and a striking downturn in security conditions. Since Christmas alone, Lebanon has seen four car bombs. The political void has also fed into wider inactivity; parliamentary elections have been missed, natural gas tenders repeatedly postponed.
The coming months will see challenges just as daunting. President Michel Sleiman is due to step down in May, while parliamentary elections are scheduled for November. Tenders for natural gas must move forward lest Lebanon risk losing the interest of international oil companies and any hope for energy independence or a balanced budget. Syrian refugees will continue to arrive in Lebanon, putting further strains on state infrastructure. And the rapidly deteriorating security situation demands a strong response by the army and Internal Security Forces, backed up by political consensus.
It is good that leaders seem close to announcing a new government with broad participation. Sleiman and prime minister-designate Tammam Salam have been doggedly pushing for a cabinet. The Future Movement and Hezbollah, protagonists in Lebanon’s most fraught political dispute, have signaled their willingness to share power. As Executive went to press, it appeared that only one card had yet to fall into place: Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
The party’s major demand is to keep its current portfolios of telecoms and energy. There is some merit in keeping ministries under the same management: often new ministers bring coteries of advisors and erase the painstaking work of their predecessors.
Similarly both Nicholas Sehnaoui and Gebran Bassil, respectively the caretaker ministers of telecoms and of energy and water, have been effective in their roles. The two are among the only ministers that can point to real accomplishments under the last government, the former improving the country’s (still slow) internet networks and the latter pushing forward the oil and gas bids.
But these are hardly good enough reasons to sign over entire ministries to specific political parties in perpetuity. Lebanon has a long history of building political fiefdoms, rather than functioning ministries. Indeed, Bassil’s comments in late January that it was important to keep the energy ministry under the control of Christians smacks of just the kind of self-serving feudalism that has long held the country back.
This thinking must not be tolerated. Sleiman and Salam should not let the FPM get in the way of the formation of new government. Hezbollah and Amal, the FPM’s major coalition partners, shouldn’t either. With weekly car bombs at home and a devastating war still raging next door, the stakes are simply too high.
There are more pressing issues in Lebanon than telecoms or even energy. It is time for the FPM to apply its competence in these areas as well.