USIP’s Mona Yacoubian examines the implications of the recently announced cabinet in Lebanon.

June 15, 2011

USIP’s Mona Yacoubian examines the implications of the recently announced cabinet in Lebanon.

What is the significance of Lebanon’s newly-announced government?

Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s government announcement ends a five-month political stalemate that increasingly threatened Lebanon’s internal stability. However, Hezbollah and its allies—known as the March 8th coalition—dominate the new cabinet. The alliance holds 18 of the 30 seats, up from 10 portfolios in the previous government. While Hezbollah holds only two cabinet portfolios (as it did in the previous government), its broader political power is enhanced by its coalition’s control over the government. The Hezbollah-allied coalition will assume control of key ministries including defense, justice, telecommunications, and labor. For its part, the opposition March 14th alliance, headed by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, has opted not to participate in the government. Instead, the Western-allied political bloc will remain firmly in the opposition. While the new cabinet announcement raises hopes for greater stability in Lebanon, the one-sided nature of the new cabinet, lacking any opposition participation, could signal deepening political tensions over time.

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Why did it take so long to form a cabinet?

Under the best circumstances, Lebanese politics are complicated by deep sectarian and ideological fissures that divide the country. A complex, confessional power-sharing formula determines the distribution of cabinet seats. As a result, government formation typically requires days, if not weeks, of back-room negotiating as political players seek the greatest power for their respective sects. Less than 24 hours after its announcement, the new cabinet suffered its first resignation. Talal Arslan, a Druze politician, quit the government, saying his portfolio did not provide his sect sufficient political power. Arslan’s resignation does not threaten the overall cabinet, but could signal greater political instability and difficulties for Prime Minister Miqati in the coming weeks.

Beyond confessional politics, broader political and regional issues also play a role. The most recent crisis erupted when the Lebanese government collapsed in January following the withdrawal of Hezbollah and its allies from the cabinet. The dispute centered on the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which is widely expected to indict Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The previous government, led by Saad Hariri, refused to cede to Hezbollah’s pressure to withdraw support for the U.N. tribunal. In addition to the turmoil surrounding the STL, Syria’s escalating unrest has prompted mounting concern inside Lebanon that the Syrian upheaval could lead to dangerous spillover effects in Lebanon. Moreover, while Damascus is embroiled in an escalating uprising, Syria remains a key regional power player in Lebanon where some political actors are reluctant to undertake decisions without seeking Syria’s approval.

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What are the implications for the United States?

Lebanon’s new government poses additional challenges to the United States as it continues to confront the broader unrest rocking the Arab world. The cabinet’s composition is the latest embodiment of Hezbollah’s continued ascendance, clearly posing a challenge to U.S influence in Lebanon. Some U.S. lawmakers have already raised concerns about Hezbollah’s rising influence. Citing greater prospects for a Lebanon that is more inclined toward Syria and Iran, some Congressional leaders are calling for a cut-off in U.S. funding for Lebanon. At a minimum, U.S. government officials will be watching closely as the Lebanese government stakes its position on key issues. In particular, the United States and Europe will seek to insure that Lebanon abides by its international commitments, notably to the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Lebanon’s position toward an increasingly isolated Syria will also be monitored closely by the United States. For his part, Lebanon’s new prime minister has pledged that his country will continue to cooperate with the tribunal and will focus primarily on Lebanese internal issues such as reducing sectarian tensions and tackling the numerous socioeconomic challenges plaguing the country.

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