Forming a New Government in Lebanon: What's the Snag?


Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis since its civil war, an unprecedented protest movement and mounting international pressure for reform, yet under-fire politicians have yet to form a government.

This raises questions about what is holding up the creation of a new cabinet and what comes next for a crumbling country that can ill-afford delays.

- What's the holdup? -

Lebanon has been waiting for a new government since former prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29, two weeks into a protest movement demanding the removal of a political class deemed incompetent and corrupt.

After weeks of political wrangling over who would head the next government, political parties on December 19 designated Hassan Diab, an engineering professor and self-professed technocrat.

But Diab, who had pledged to form a government within six weeks of his nomination, has hit repeated snags.

Quotas apportioning positions between the key Christian, Sunni and Shiite communities have been key to forming governments since the end of the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

The process always involves an arduous "slicing (of) the pie", said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

Lebanon's three-month-old protest movement has mobilized against this kind of political horsetrading but old habits die hard.

"We are seeing the same modus operandi -- the same sectarian and partisan logic of distribution of shares," Nader said.

This time around, political parties are objecting to a proposal by Diab to form a downsized cabinet of 18 ministers instead of 30, arguing that it would deprive some parties of their slice.

Two of the smaller groups allied to Hizbullah -- the Marada Movement and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party -- appeared to be the most vocal critics of a tighter cabinet.

Diab has yet to comment on a fresh proposal for a 20-minister government meeting those parties' demands.

- What will the government look like? -

Political parties also seem to be wrangling over names.

Diab has pledged to form a government that includes independent experts and representatives of the popular movement -- a key demand of protesters who have lost faith in the established elite.

But this is a tall order, said Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut, who argued that all proposed candidates are linked to established political parties.

"A cabinet made up exclusively of technocrats is wishful thinking," he said.

"Behind every candidate, there is a political party backing their nomination," he added.

Established parties "are still in control of the process."

Christian leader Suleiman Frangieh, whose Marada Movement is one of the largest Christian blocs, confessed to this in a press conference on Tuesday, saying a government of independent experts is "not realistic."

"Our political partners are naming people that represent them," he said, justifying his demand for wider representation.

"The popular movement should give us a chance -- the proposed names are good ones."

- Will it ease the crisis? -

Donors and citizens are pinning their hopes on a new government to spearhead reforms, unlock billions in international aid, and help stabilize a plummeting Lebanese pound that has lost over a third of its value on the parallel market.

But analysts argue that there is little the next government can do.

"The task that awaits any cabinet during this serious period is herculean," said Karim Mufti, a political scientist.

"In view of the multidimensional nature of the crisis, it seems difficult to envisage short-term solutions to the country's financial, economic and social problems."

Lebanon has one of the world's highest debt-to-GDP ratios.

A grinding dollar liquidity crisis and restrictions imposed by banks on dollar transactions has compounded the crisis, leaving Lebanon on the brink of default.

To make matters worse, political opponents of Hizbullah, including Hariri's al-Mustaqbal Movement, have said they would not participate in the next government.

This has sparked fears any administration would be lopsided, dominated by Hizbullah allies and lack support needed to foster goodwill at home and abroad.

Khashan said that political wrangling suggested the existing parties are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges at hand.

"Solving the country's economic problems is far more difficult than forming a cabinet, and yet politicians can't seem to agree on the simpler task."

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