As Lebanon's cabinet formation process drags on, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil are attempting to ensure that any new government allows them to advance their political agenda. This involves two primary objectives: saving Mr Aoun's shipwreck of a presidency and guaranteeing that Mr Bassil will become the next president, in 2022.
Saad Hariri, who was designated in October to form a government, has been unable until now to come to an agreement with Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil over certain ministerial portfolios. Normally, under the Taif agreement of 1989, whose clauses were integrated into the constitution, the prime minister-designate “signs the decree forming the government with the president”. Mr Aoun has re-interpreted this vague clause to negotiate over Mr Hariri’s ministerial choices.
Before Mr Hariri was chosen by parliament to head the new government, the president had implicitly warned that he would defend his interests in the cabinet-formation process. This had come after Mr Aoun was compelled, principally by Hezbollah, to go ahead with parliamentary consultations leading to Mr Hariri's being tasked with forming a government. The President's preference was to agree over a cabinet prior to Mr Hariri's designation.
Since then Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil have fought hard for power in a new cabinet, mainly because both fear they may pay the highest price for widespread popular resentment against Lebanon’s political cartel. Their demands are a good indication of their strategy for the remaining two years of Mr Aoun’s term. Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil have demanded the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry, as well as what is known as a “blocking third” – meaning a certain number of ministers loyal to them whose resignation can bring the cabinet down.
The Justice Ministry is a sign that Mr Aoun intends to use the two years left of his term to open corruption files against his political enemies. In that way he can affirm that he is an honest man who is fighting shady political rivals who have not allowed his presidency to succeed. Such an effort is unlikely to work, all the more so as Mr Bassil’s integrity is a matter of considerable doubt, but it would allow Mr Aoun to create an alterative narrative for his disastrous time in office.
Control of the Interior Ministry, in turn, would mean that Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil would be in charge of organising municipal and parliamentary elections in 2022. It is vital for them to ensure that these elections do not confirm their loss of popularity, which would undermine Mr Bassil’s presidential ambitions.
As for the so-called “blocking third”, it appears that Mr Aoun has agreed to give up on this, because Hezbollah asked him to. The thinking behind the demand was that Mr Bassil would collapse the government before the end of Mr Aoun’s term, and engage in blackmail by not allowing the formation of a new one until Lebanon’s leading politicians supported his election as president.
A second facet of Mr Aoun’s and Mr Bassil’s plan is to reinvigorate the presidency, in order to reverse some changes brought about by Taif, which curtailed the powers of the Maronite Christian president. In that way both men could argue that they returned power to the Maronites. Mr Bassil could therefore portray himself as a communal champion meriting the presidency.
A central aspect of this effort is Mr Aoun’s acquiring effective veto power over Mr Hariri’s proposed cabinet line-ups. Since his signature is needed for a government to be formed, the president already has implicit veto power. But at the same time nothing in the constitution states that a president can form a government with the prime minister-designate, which is what Mr Aoun is doing.
There are two problems here. First, the constitution is vague, and there is no credible, independent judicial body in Lebanon to resolve constitutional ambiguities. And second, Mr Hariri agreed with the two main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, to allow the Shiites to retain the Finance Ministry and sign off on the naming of Shiite ministers. In that way he boxed himself in, opening the door for Mr Aoun to argue that he too should participate in shaping the government.
How long can these political games go on when Lebanon is disintegrating economically? The signs are that Hezbollah wants a government soon, for a variety of reasons including growing discontent within the Shiite community. At the same time, the party does not want to take sides in the Hariri-Aoun dispute to avoid harming its relations with either man. Hezbollah has pressed for a government to be finalised, and may well push harder after the new year.
This will not change the fact that until Mr Aoun leaves office, Mr Bassil will continue to use all the weapons at his disposal to impose himself as the successor to his father-in-law. It is far from certain that Hezbollah will allow him to do so, as this could trap the party into supporting him when it might have other preferences. What is shocking is that the steadily poorer Lebanese population, which is suffering the most, seems entirely marginal to the politicians’ calculations.
Michael Young is a Lebanon columnist for The National