New Lebanese government faces security and economic challenges amid political differences

12:24, December 12, 2009      

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The national unity cabinet of Prime Minister Saad Hariri was granted a record number of confidence votes a day before, as 122 out of 128 lawmakers voted at the Parliament House in Beirut in favor of the cabinet.

However, political differences between the majority and the opposition in the government, along with Lebanon's sensitive relationship with Hezbollah and Syria, pose great challenges to the new cabinet.

POLITICAL DIFFERENCES WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT

"The problem is that this new Lebanese government must balance so many competing interests that it will not be able to agree on any major decisions," says Mohamad Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"There are so many competing interests in this government that anyone could obstruct any major decision," he added.

Lebanon's cabinet was formed last November, five months after the June parliamentary elections.

The cabinet is formed on the basis of 15-10-5 formula, which means that among the total 30 seats of the cabinet, 15 go to the Western and Saudi-backed majority, 10 to the Syrian and Iranian-backed opposition, and five to President Michel Suleiman.

The cabinet was formed as the leaders of the opposition bloc agreed on Hariri's cabinet lineup proposal, ending the five-month-long bargaining over new cabinet's seats.

Sources close to the cabinet formation process said that the final formation of the cabinet came after Saudi King Abdullah's meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in October, a sign of rapprochement of the two regional powers both having big influence in Lebanon since 2005 when Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated.

SECURITY ISSUE WITH HEZBOLLAH

One of the main differences between the cabinet's components is the security issue related to Hezbollah, the Shiite armed group backed by Syria and Iran, which now holds two portfolios in the 30-seat cabinet.

The Lebanese government policy statement gives Hezbollah the right to keep its arms, which also says that the government is committed to U.N. Resolution 1701 which ended the 2006 war against Israel. However, the resolution demands that Hezbollah be disarmed.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah, holding well-equipped and trained military, has made it clear its arms are not up for debate.

"The southern border between Lebanon and Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today, which is perhaps the most important issue that will face this new Hariri government," said Bazzi.

"The danger of heightened rhetoric and a military buildup by both sides mean that any small incidents along the border could quickly get out of control," he stressed.

Hezbollah fought a war against Israel in 2006 after the latter abducted two of its soldiers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned last week that "the Lebanese government and Hezbollah are becoming interwoven in each other, and they will both suffer the consequences of any violation against Israel."

RELATIONSHIP WITH SYRIA

Another major challenge for the Lebanese government, and particularly Prime Minister Hariri, is the relation with Syria.

Preparations are underway for Hariri's visit to Damascus, but the date of the trip is still unknown.

An-Nahar daily, however, said the visit is likely to take place on Monday.

Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated on Feb. 14, 2005 in Beirut. The investigation into his assassination, led by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, indicated in its first two reports that the Syrian government may be linked to the assassination.

Rafiq Hariri's killing led to massive political changes in Lebanon, including the Cedar Revolution and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after nearly three decades of presence.

Relations between the parliamentary majority led by Saad Hariri and Damascus have been rough since 2005. Hariri's visit to Syria is seen as an opportunity to change the course of relations between the two neighbor countries.

ECONOMIC REFORMS NEEDED

Economy also represents a main challenge to Hariri's government.

Finance Minister Raya Haffar said that achieving higher economic growth in Lebanon requires a political harmony and a will to carry out necessary reforms.

However, Hady Amr, director of Brookings Doha Center, felt that "this new government may be too divided to push through new reforms badly needed in Lebanon, such as telecommunications reform."

The government intended to implement the remaining clauses of Lebanon Donors Conference held in Paris in January 2006, and most importantly, the privatization of the telecom and electricity sectors.

The previous governments after 2005 failed to carry out major reforms due to the sharp political differences, security incidents, and Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel.

The Association of Banks in Lebanon announced on Friday that the public debt reached 49.2 billion U.S. dollars in last September, rising from 47.9 billion U.S. dollars in last July. Privatization is widely accepted as a key to reduce the public debt.

Source: Xinhua
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