Beirut, Lebanon – After nearly a decade of turbulent politics and postponed elections, Lebanon held its first general election since 2009 this May.
Six months later, parties are still wrangling for ministerial slots to form a government.
A country defined by a rigid sectarian political balance where custom dictates how cabinet seats are allocated, Lebanon is no stranger to political stalemate.
Back in 2009, it took five months to form a government, and it took twice as long to appoint a new one in 2014.
But with concerns that an already-frail economy could go into a dangerous tailspin, a new government is urgently needed to launch the fiscal reforms required to unlock billions of dollars in conditional loans and grants Lebanon secured from lenders in April.
Along with the high stakes and dizzying political horse-trading, results from the new proportional electoral system, first used in May, have complicated the cabinet formation talks ongoing for months.
The complexity is compounded by regional and international dynamics: the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry, the future of the Syrian regime next door and the attention these issues attract from Washington.
There are several factors behind the hold-up, but “at the core of it is the political equilibrium” at both the national and regional level, Johnny Mounayar, a political commentator, told Al Jazeera.
“Each side has its own calculations.”
At a recent press conference in Beirut, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said he has a government line-up ready, but that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary-cum-political movement, is obstructing the formation of a national unity government.
Constitutionally, it is the prime minister and president’s task to form a cabinet.
However, in a country that recognises 18 official religious sects, all with a stake in governance, cabinet selection is more about political representation than technocratic efficiency.
The country’s 15-year civil war was brought to an end in 1990 through a power-sharing system that divided the legislature equally among Muslims and Christians, reinforcing an older formula that dictated the president must be Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.
Hariri’s comments addressed Hezbollah’s demand that one of their Sunni allies be awarded a ministerial seat, which would come out of the premier’s share – a request Hariri rejects outright.
“The way Hariri sees it is that he has the exclusive power of the Sunnis,” said political analyst Kamal Wazne. But the election results “show[ed] there is a portion of the Sunnis that did not side with the mainstream”.
Hariri’s Saudi-backed Future Movement (FM) party suffered losses in the May parliamentary election: out of 27 legislative seats allocated to Sunnis, Hariri’s bloc secured only 17 – a result Hariri blamed on the new electoral system.
Although FM still represents a majority of Sunni voters, for the first time, Hariri no longer monopolises representation of the Sunni community.
The PM-designate does not want to acknowledge an outcome in which 40 percent of Sunni MPs were “elected out of his political power,” said Wazne.
The whole issue is about “fair representation in government,” Wazne told Al Jazeera, explaining Hezbollah’s rationale for insisting its Sunni allies be granted a ministerial portfolio. “So, excluding them is actually not democratic.”
Lebanon’s cabinet mirrors the allotment of parliamentary seats.
Its 30-minister cabinet is split equally between Christians and Muslims, divided in turn among each confession’s sects. Sunnis receive six seats in the Muslim share, Shia get another six, and Druze get three.
The cabinet must also reflect electoral results. While there is no official ratio of parliamentary seats to cabinet roles, it is largely understood among political leaders that a bloc of five or more MPs qualifies for one ministry.
Enter the six MPs Hezbollah is lobbying for: they ran on separate parliamentary tickets.
In other words, they do not constitute a single bloc – an argument the Hariri camp has used to call Hezbollah’s motives into question.
The debate over the Sunni MPs, dubbed in Lebanon the “Sunni tangle”, is only the latest episode of political manoeuvering that has defined the formation talks.
For months, Christian leaders debated how many seats to allot to the Lebanese Forces, one of the country’s largest parties and a rival of the president’s Free Patriotic Movement. An agreement was only reached in October.
The “Sunni tangle” is a microcosm of Lebanon’s inter- and intra-sectarian politics, as well as entrenched foreign interests.
Lebanon’s pluralism “leads to this competition between factions and leaders,” said Anthony Elghossain, a Lebanese writer focused on Washington-Beirut relations.
“That provides space for regional intervention, often because the leaders themselves recruit regional or international actors to participate in the politics of Lebanon.”
Hezbollah’s demand for a single ministerial seat “practically, doesn’t change anything, but it is symbolic,” said Mounayar.
First, it would weaken Hariri’s position as the “father of the Sunnis,” a term he often uses himself.
But it also serves as a marker of Saudi influence, somewhat derailed of late, in the face of Iranian sway over the country and neighbouring affairs, Mounayar said.
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has strained Saudi Arabia’s ties with the international community.
Iraq’s recent parliamentary election tilted the scales in Iran’s favour even more than before.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Saudis are being pressured into a ceasefire with the Houthis, backed by Iran.
All these events indicate a “game change,” which in turn, is a “relief” for Hezbollah, Mounayar explained.
The “regional climate is appropriate” for Hezbollah “to nurture” the insistence that the Sunni MPs outside Hariri’s camp be represented in the cabinet, he said.
Some of these MPs are believed to have ties to Syria’s regime, which Hezbollah has been fighting alongside during the country’s civil war.
With that conflict nearing an end, granting a cabinet seat to an affiliated MP could strengthen Damascus and Tehran’s influence over Lebanese politics.
The way Hariri sees it is that he has the exclusive power of the Sunnis, but the election results show[ed] there is a portion of the Sunnis that did not side with the mainstream
Kamal Wazne, political analyst
In recent weeks, the US expanded financial sanctions on Hezbollah, as well as individuals or entities who knowingly “assist, support, recruit, or fundraise” for the group.
Reports have surfaced of Washington delivering a message to Hariri, subtly warning against Hezbollah being awarded the Health Ministry, often categorized as a “service ministry,” in reference to the patronage system practised and endorsed by Lebanon’s sectarian leaders.
To some in Washington, the ministry appears to be an avenue for Hezbollah to bypass financial pressures.
To Hezbollah, it is the best way to provide services for its base through state resources.
The US has long been concerned that increased Hezbollah influence in government will negatively shape issues ranging from Hezbollah’s own arsenal to the future of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Yet the intended impact of US sanctions and the concern over Hezbollah potentially running the Health Ministry both appear detached from the on-the-ground reality of Lebanese politics, analysts told Al Jazeera.
“They don’t understand Hezbollah,” said Wazne, meaning the US and other anti-Hezbollah actors. “Once they understand Hezbollah, then they know how this organisation gets tougher under scrutiny.”
“What other option do the Americans have?” asked Mounayar, referring to the “Sunni tangle”.
“The alternative is chaos; that would be a great service to Hezbollah,” he said. “We learned this from experience: Hezbollah can control chaos and use it to its advantage,” Mounayar added, referring to an episode in 2008 when Hezbollah used the threat of violence as a negotiation tactic with the government.
“One ministerial seat is not that big a price,” he said, predicting that Washington and Paris, which also influences Lebanese politics, would ultimately prioritize political stability.
President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, current Foreign Minister Bassil Gebran, offered a solution to the Hariri-Hezbollah stalemate: Aoun would give the Sunni MPs one cabinet seat from the Maronite Christian share. But the offer was rejected.
Another suggested solution was to award a cabinet position to a candidate of the Sunni MPs’ choosing, creating two layers of separation from Hezbollah. This was also reportedly rejected.
But Mounayar said the rejections were “tactical moves” taken by Hezbollah-backed MPs to up the ante before an eventual compromise.
‘Everything and nothing at stake’
“Everything and nothing is at stake,” Elghossain said about the government’s formation.
“Nothing is at stake because if, and when, a government is formed, it’s hard to imagine that it will somehow manage to tackle all of these challenges.”
At the same time, “everything is at stake because it’s almost impossible to think of how Lebanon still exists and survives in this sort of state of ‘controlled chaos’,” he added, referencing a term used by Lebanese to describe the country’s social and political equilibrium.
“Lebanon is a pyramid of problems sometimes,” Elghossain said.
Wazne was even more pessimistic. “We are a country on the verge of collapse,” he said. “Literally.”
Lebanon has over $85bn in public debt, ranked the world’s third-largest and constituting over 150 percent of the gross domestic product.
The country has chronic power cuts, a rubbish management crisis, water collection and distribution challenges, environmental degradations and rampant corruption, to name a few issues.
In addition, the country has had to deal with more than a million Syrian refugees.
In the midst of this crisis, Wazne said, “We’re acting like adolescents in Lebanon.”