Lebanon’s new government: A focused approach

Prime Minister Tammam Salam has a chance to prove doubters wrong

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If five men in a car had only moments to escape a tornado approaching in the rear view mirror, the last thing you would expect them to do would be argue over directions. Yet this is effectively what the Lebanese government spent much of the month doing.

Faced with the realistic possibility of the country returning to civil war as weekly bombs rocked Beirut and other parts of the country, the new ministers spent weeks bickering. This was not a debate over who gets to sit in the front seat — that was the previous eleven months’ work — but instead over what nickname to give the car. Hezbollah and chums favored ‘The Resistance Racer’ while Hariri and company pushed for ‘Ignition Independence.’

[pullquote]It is clear that Lebanon will need a strong government ready to carry out meaningful reforms but this one is not it. Yet pure cynicism is perhaps not justified and certainly not helpful.[/pullquote]

As the dispute over how to refer to Hezbollah’s military might continued, the Kataeb party threatened to walk out. Even by Lebanese standards it was a foolhardy bluff; no serious observer expected a party with three percent of parliamentary seats to leave a government in which they have roughly 12 percent of the ministries.

After all the bluster, the cumulative effect, as so often with Lebanon’s political classes, was a last-minute fudge. In many ways, the compromise government’s cabinet policy statement (see full statement in English) seemed designed to say nothing and everything at the same time.

On the contested issue of the “resistance” to Israel and Hezbollah’s military role in it, the Cabinet committed to focusing on the country’s “national sovereignty” while simultaneously affirming the right of Lebanese citizens to “resist the Israeli occupation.” On the economy it pledged to engage in “dialogue” with employers and unions over wage disputes, but offered no position on the more fundamental issue of the proposed public sector wage hike. And on oil and gas it committed to paying particular attention to two decrees needed to move stalled bids forward, but was careful to avoid saying the government would actually pass them.

There were the usual oddities — the commitment to “redouble efforts” to find Imam Musa al-Sadr despite his disappearance in Libya occurring over 35 years ago. And there were subtle linguistic tricks — referring to Syrians in the country as “displaced” people rather than refugees. While no common usage of displaced refers to people outside their own borders, it necessitates fewer rights than the more evocative term.

Many were deeply cynical about the statement. This government’s mandate only officially lasts until the selection of a new president, due to take place at the end of May. Seeing as they spent a quarter of their mandated time arguing over how to say what they will do, the chances of them doing it are low.

It is clear that in the long run Lebanon will need a strong government ready to carry out meaningful reforms but this one is not it. Yet pure cynicism is perhaps not justified and certainly not helpful.

The Cabinet has rightly identified its top two priorities — the deteriorating security situation and preparing the way for presidential elections.

On the former, there have been small positive signs, though relief at a decrease in the number of car bombs in Beirut has been tempered by an uptick in violence in the northern city of Tripoli. On the latter, the race to succeed President Michel Sleiman is warming up, with the runners and riders starting to jostle for position. The levers in the Grand Serail turn notoriously slowly, so the selection of a replacement by the May 25 deadline would be an achievement. A smooth transition in that pivotal role will help the country avoid further strife, while a more conciliatory and cohesive political atmosphere will also be looked on favorably the next time the country goes to international donors for much-needed support.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam is fully aware of the limits of his own powers. Yet with a clear focus on these two limited goals he could yet prove himself a success.