Lebanon’s new government: Get to work, gents (and lady)

An unspectacular lineup faces an urgent crisis

New prime minister Tammam Salam has a tough time ahead

Having spent the best part of a year trying to form a government, when the new Prime Minister Tammam Salam visited President Michel Sleiman in his Baabda Palace to announce the new Cabinet, he may have been feeling more pressure than excitement.

The challenges facing the country are greater than at any time since the civil war ended in 1990. Since the start of the year, there has been a string of suicide bombings, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. Economically, the country is stagnating — with scores of young people desperately seeking a route out. If Salam is to defuse the crisis, he will need a strong Cabinet around him with a clear plan.

The initial signs are not wholly positive. Shortly after the Cabinet was announced, it became clear that many of them had not been selected purely on merit. Ali Hassan Khalil, the new finance minister, admitted in public that he knows very little about finance, while he speaks far from perfect English and French — a major stumbling block when presenting the country internationally.

Elsewhere, Ashraf Rifi and Nouhad Machnouk’s appointments to justice and interior ministries respectively raised more than a few eyebrows — both are seen in some quarters to be partial in ongoing clashes in Tripoli and elsewhere. Whether they can be fair brokers, taking on armed militants on both sides for the sake of the country’s security, is yet to be seen.

There were also gifted people being seemingly misused. For example, new agriculture minister Akram Chehayeb seemed much more suited to the role of environment minister — he was previously chairman of the Parliament’s Environment Committee — than Mohammed Machnouk, whose background is more in cultural activities. And while Gebran Bassil has many talents, charming people and making friends (a prerequisite for any successful foreign minister) are not among them.

Perhaps the most obvious omission was the least surprising one — the lack of female representation. Just one of the 24 new ministers is a woman. Indeed those cruel enough to joke suggested that her isolation was such that Alice Shebtini’s title should really have been Minister for the Misplaced, rather than Displaced.

More fundamental doubts about the government’s mandate abound. In theory their term could be up as early as the end of May, when they will select a new president. If this proves to be the case, then they will have little time to implement meaningful changes.

But while there may be something of a collective sense of ambivalence towards the Cabinet, this is no time for indifference.

What we present we will be presenting over the coming days online are a wide series of reforms — from short-term responses to the security situation to a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of the state to better represent the country’s wishes. In each field we have asked leading experts to put forward the case for change.

No longer can the government fail to grapple with the Syrian refugee crisis, with rival ministries implementing contradictory policies.  No longer can the political classes allow the security situation to slide out of control. And no longer can the country continue with an unfair tax system or allow our politics to remain dominated by outside interests.

If implemented, these changes would make a major difference to the country, both stabilizing the situation and giving people a say in their society again. Many of them are not rocket science — this magazine has advocated for some of these policies since its inception in 1999 — but they require a political resolve to change Lebanon’s bankrupt system once and for all.

So far we have seen little sign that this government will be made of stronger stuff than its predecessors, but we call on those newly empowered to stand up for their compatriots, and take the right steps for the country.

Lebanon can no longer muddle through, for as it lunges from crisis to crisis it slides ever further towards a return to civil war. This government has a rare chance to take major steps to defuse this crisis. For the future of all Lebanese, it is time for them to get to work.

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