Lebanese President Aoun is unlikely to break deadlock in forming a government as the crisis centres around a small but critical issue

This section is an extract from Le Beck's Weekly Security Brief that provides in-depth insight on more strategic issues affecting the MENA region.

After seven months of deadlock and several fruitless attempts in recent weeks to form a government, Lebanese President Michel Aoun intervened to avoid what he described as a national “catastrophe”, launching a new initiative of “possible solutions” centring primarily on resolving the issue of the representation of six pro-Syrian/pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs. This issue is the last major obstacle to the formation of the new government, as Hezbollah insists (by withholding the names of their designated ministers and thus blocking government formation) that the six Sunni MPs be represented in the new government via PM-designate Saad Hariri’s Cabinet share of the government positions. At this time, while the specific details of Aoun’s initiative have not been disclosed, it remains unclear what solution he could propose that would be accepted by the various parties. For their part, the six MPs in question emphasised that they “will not accept being represented by any bloc”, with MP Jihad Samad going so far as to suggest that they could escalate to demanding “more than just one minister”.

Hezbollah’s demand that the six “independent” Sunni MPs be represented may seem anecdotal, yet it is perceived (likely accurately) by Hariri as an effort by the Shiite party and its allies to change the political landscape in Lebanon in the long-term. Hariri’s opposition to their representation is based on the argument that the six MPs stood in the elections under the umbrella of other political blocs, which have already been accounted for in the Cabinet allocations. The Sunni MPs are, indeed, known to be close to both Hezbollah and to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and their representation as Sunnis, rather than as part of the pro-Hezbollah/Syria camp, while technically respects the sectarian balance in Lebanon does offset a more implicit equilibrium between the main political forces in the country. Beyond that, in the long-term, even recognising the Sunni MPs as a legitimate political force (rather than a mosaic of isolated Sunni politicians) breaks the de facto monopoly that Hariri’s Future Movement has had on Sunni representation thus far and creates a potential rival to the main Sunni party.

To tackle the issue, several initiative have been proposed. There are for instance, speculation that Aoun’s initiative proposed that the MPs would be represented from his own share. Building on this is the idea that the minister appointed could be someone other than one of these specific six MPs. Hariri also rejected another suggestion by caretaker FM and Free Patriot Movement leader Gebran Bassil that involved increasing the number of government ministers from 30 to 32 to more easily include one of the Sunni MPs. These proposals, however, are largely missing the point. They address the issue as more of a technical one,  while de facto giving some legitimacy to the claim that the six “independent” MPs should be represented one way or another - something that Hariri’s camp staunchly opposes.

The current stalemate, while focused on an apparently marginal issues, is thus critical and may, as a result, take even more time to resolve. The fact that Hezbollah and its allies are making such a move now underscores their likely assessment that their position has become stronger and Hariri’s weaker, forcing him to eventually “cave in”. The Sunni leader was, indeed, impacted by the November 2017 crisis that saw him resigning (via a speech from Saudi Arabia) and may have cost him some support among his own constituency. Such fragility was further highlighted this year by his underwhelming performance in the elections, where his party lost multiple seats. On the broader, regional level, the strengthening of the Assad regime in Syria may also play a role in Hezbollah’s decision to start trying to change the political realities in Lebanon by giving the pro-Syria camp some additional confidence, while also bolstering the idea that the country needs to accept its new regional environment - one marked by the return of Syria’s influence.

On the other hand, however, Hariri may also feel that his position still enables him to draw certain red lines. While his political opponent may flaunt the idea of replacing him as the current caretaker PM, there is no clear alternative to Hariri. Furthermore, at a time when the US is increasing its pressure on Iran, and as other anti-Iran US allies are pushing for Washington to start sanctioning Lebanon more broadly, Hariri may feel that he more needed now than ever. The presence of a known anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah figure at the head of the Lebanese government, indeed, may act to shield Lebanon against such attempts.

Overall, this means that both sides are effectively playing a “game of chicken” in which they expect the other will cave before them. As such, and despite the optimistic tones from various figures in the caretaker government (including Hariri and Berri), what is known (and rumoured) about Aoun’s initiative suggests that he will be unsuccessful in breaking the stalemate - unless one of the two sides does flinch. This also means that, despite its potential negative socio-economic impact, a protracted political crisis should not be ruled out.