Lebanon's Government Is Arguing About Petty Politics – if It Ever Meets at All

Hezbollah is using rebel minister Kordahi as a pawn in its bid to influence elections, but new players on Lebanon's fast-changing political map threaten their plan

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Lebanese Army Commander Joseph Aoun attends the 78th anniversary of Lebanon's Independence Day on the eastern outskirts of Beirut on November 22, 2021.
Lebanese Army Commander Joseph Aoun attends the 78th anniversary of Lebanon's Independence Day on the eastern outskirts of Beirut on November 22, 2021.Credit: AFP / Anwar Amro
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“The government of Lebanon” is merely a theoretical term. The country has a prime minister and ministers, but the government hasn't met even once for more than a month.

It's not that it doesn’t have a great deal of work to get to.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati stated that “102 issues are on the government’s agenda,” the most important of which is the crash of the Lebanese currently to 25,000 pounds per U.S. dollar (as opposed to the official rate of 1,500 pounds per dollar).

But the economy can wait. There are more burning issues, like Information Minister George Kordahi's remarks that made Saudi Arabia impose a stifling economic boycott on Lebanon.

He spoke out against the war the Saudis are waging in Yemen, and said that the Houthi rebels are fighting in Yemen to improve their rights. Kordahi made these statements before he was appointed information minister, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t care about the timetable.

According to the Saudis, it is inconceivable for a minister to serve in the Lebanese government after having even thought that the war –which Riyadh sees as being at the core of its fight against Iran – was useless. The Saudis are asking for Kordahi’s resignation, and if not, the Lebanese be damned

This has swelled into a national issue with existential implications for Lebanon. Hezbollah strongly opposes the minister’s resignation, as do other Lebanese movements, which see the Saudi demand as outright interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

At the same time, the economic boycott on Lebanon is a noose around its neck that could also derail international aid efforts. Without real guarantees that Lebanon can repay the loans it would receive, the donor countries and international financial institutions are unlikely to open their wallets. Saudi Arabia is supposed to provide a significant part of these guarantees, but as long as Kordahi remains in the government, there will be no guarantees.

Because firing Kordahi would require the approval of two thirds of members of the government, Hezbollah and its allies announced that they would not be present at government meetings, thus using their power to prevent a decision and at the same time blocking an economic breakthrough. In Lebanese politics, this tactic reveals the principle by which a third of ministers plus one can stop any important decision the government wants to pass.

How long can Hezbollah prevent the meeting of the government? That depends on the bargaining success of the organization with the president and other Lebanese ministers on another issue entirely.

In March, parliamentary elections are planned, and because the parliament picks the president, it is key for Hezbollah to ensure that the new parliament is to its liking.

Converging interests

This is where the interests of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah converge with those of the 88-year-old president, Michel Aoun, who is expected to end his term at the end of 2020.

Aoun wants to lay the groundwork for the election of his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, a Hezbollah ally. The problem is that Bassil, on whom the U.S. administration has imposed sanctions, is deeply unpopular with the public. The elections in March might prove his political weakness even more, and reduce his chances of becoming president.

Aoun understands the dilemma, and therefore announced that he opposes the elections unless they are held in May, and has made that a condition for him to sign the required presidential order to hold the elections. Postponing the elections until May is no guarantee that Bassil will do any better, but they give him two more critical months to organize and draft political support.

Another possibility is that the elections will result in blocs and forces that would be unable to reach an agreement on a candidate for president, in which case Aoun would be able to hold on to his office until an agreed upon successor is found, which could take many months. Aoun and Hezbollah only have a small problem: To postpone the elections would call for a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds majority of the parliament to pass, and that is unlikely to happen now.

This isn’t the only difficulty. Postponing the elections might bring the frustrated and desperate public out to the streets, to demand that elections be held on time so as to move ahead on the country’s economic renewal. This is why Hezbollah needs to take advantage of every political opportunity to close a deal before things get out of hand. If need be, it will make every effort to prevent Kordahi’s resignation or dismissal, thus maintaining the crisis with Saudi Arabia, until it compels the political forces to either agree to elections in May or cancel the elections.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Aoun must deal with another star lighting up the Lebanese political firmament: the commander of Lebanon’s army, Joseph Aoun, who does not conceal his intention to replace Michel Aoun (the two are not related).

Joseph Aoun is popular with the people, among other things because he was able to keep the army out of politics – as much as is possible in Lebanon. During the recent protests in Beirut he was perceived as supporting the protesters and in May, while visiting France, he was received by President Emmanuel Macron as if he were a head of state. His ties with the United States, where he studied, are very close; and no less important, he also has good ties with Hassan Nasrallah and despises the president’s son-in-law.

But the parliamentary elections and after that, the presidential elections, are a long way away. In a country where the political kaleidoscope changes at any given moment, March or May is an eternity away. Meanwhile, fuel, medicine and basic products are running out, and so is the little money remaining in the hands of Lebanon’s citizens.

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