Nearly three months after Lebanon's election, Hariri is walking a tightrope when it comes to forming a new government

The country is at a crossroads, with clashing agendas hampering an already difficult process, writes Michael Young

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri gestures as he talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Although Lebanon held its parliamentary elections in early May, the prime minister designate, Saad Hariri, has yet to form a new government. That's not surprising since the country is at a crossroads and clashing agendas and ambitions were always certain to delay what was never an easy process.

The elections essentially did two things. On the one hand, they brought pro-Syrian politicians back to parliament, giving the Hezbollah-led bloc and pro-Syrians what is known as a “blocking third” in the legislature. This means they can impede legislation they oppose without having to ally themselves with the large bloc of president Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, the acting foreign minister. They would like to replicate this power in the government.

The elections also showed that there is a solid core of Lebanese opposed to Hezbollah, many of whom voted for candidates of the mainly Christian Lebanese Forces party, which expanded its parliamentary bloc to 15 members. While this is unlikely to seriously threaten Hezbollah and Syria’s power, it means the Lebanese Forces are demanding significant representation in the government.

All this helps explain why Mr Hariri has had to face contradictory demands from all sides for a greater share of ministerial portfolios. Resolving this, while also satisfying the legitimate claims of the different parties, will take time.

However, something more fundamental is also taking place and provides a better explanation for the delays in finalising a cabinet: Lebanon's political forces are repositioning, given the likely end to the conflict in Syria and the emergence, or re-emergence, of political actors on the Lebanese scene as a result of this. The future make-up of the government could very much reflect this new alignment.

While Syrian interests in Lebanon continue to be protected by Hezbollah, recent events suggest that the Syrians are no longer willing to maintain this dependency. Lebanese politicians keen to appeal to Syria, including Mr Bassil, as well as a former head of the General Security Directorate, Jamil Al Sayyed, have been pushing Mr Hariri to initiate direct contacts with Damascus. While neither opposes Hezbollah, this invitation to open a line to the Assad regime suggests they do not believe Hezbollah should be the primary funnel for ties with Syria.

The role of Russia in Lebanon is also a new variable that Mr Hariri has to factor in. The Russians have been active on numerous fronts in recent months, showing a desire to expand their relations with Beirut. They are now setting up a mechanism for a return to Syria of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan as part of a broader effort to secure western funding for Syria’s reconstruction.

Moscow has also sought to finalise a military co-operation agreement with the Lebanese government, which would grant the Russians military access to Lebanese bases. Pressure from the US and Europe compelled Mr Hariri to put the agreement on hold but as Russian involvement increases, his margin to stall might be reduced.

That’s not all. Russia’s Novatek gas production company is involved in a consortium that will explore Lebanon’s offshore oil and gas reserves. The Russians have also opened cultural centres throughout Lebanon, even as they have revived networks of students who once studied in Russia or the Soviet Union. In other words, Mr Hariri will have to consider this Russian push in determining how he shapes his government, to see if it plays in his favour or not.

The optimists believe an enhanced Russian role could buy Mr Hariri wiggle room with regards to Syria and Hezbollah, while helping to stabilise Lebanon and possibly reduce Hezbollah-Israeli tensions. The pessimists emphasise Russia and Syria might adopt a “good cop, bad cop” routine, in such a way as to advance their mutual interests, at the expense of Lebanese sovereignty.

Mr Hariri must also take into consideration another development in shaping his cabinet: the all-consuming ambition of Mr Bassil to succeed his father-in-law as Lebanon’s president. The foreign minister knows his chances of being elected will depend on his ties with Syria and Hezbollah, even if he must be careful not to come across as a patsy of both, which could undermine his credibility.

What that means for Mr Hariri, however, is whether it is advisable to hand Mr Bassil’s bloc a lion’s share of Christian ministries, as the foreign minister insists, or whether he should balance this with more seats for the Lebanese Forces.

All these calculations are not helped by Mr Hariri's own ambiguities. It is not clear what the prime minister designate's priorities are. He needs to address Lebanon's faltering economy and believes the country's participation in Syrian reconstruction will help this. At the same time, he does not want to normalise relations with Syria or reinforce the Assad regime. Mr Hariri also hesitates to openly oppose Hezbollah, knowing it would heighten sectarian tensions and push the party to oust him from his post.

It will take considerable time for a new government to see the light of day. Yet time is not a luxury Lebanon has in a severe economic crisis. Mr Hariri is walking a tightrope to get his government right. Given the absence of a domestic consensus, this can seem a Herculean task.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut

Michael Young

Michael Young

Michael Young is a Lebanon columnist for The National