Since October, Lebanon has been mired in a government-formation process that is going nowhere. While the country continues to suffer, President Michel Aoun and Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri remain divided over who is the final authority on naming ministers, essentially creating a constitutional crisis.
Several weeks ago Mr Hariri took a draft cabinet proposal to Mr Aoun for his approval. The president rejected the list brought to him. The presidency argued that the Prime minister-designate had failed to respect the “standards of fair representation in accordance with the provisions of the constitution".
It is odd to hear Mr Aoun talk about "fair representation" as he and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil have spent years eliminating all rival Christian representatives from successive governments. In fact, their wanting to do so once again is at the heart of the problem between the president and Mr Hariri.
Mr Aoun wants to appoint all Christian ministers, and has accused Mr Hariri of denying him what he conceded to the two Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal. The Prime minister-designate has indeed allowed the two parties to name all Shiite ministers, but insists that because he himself has a cross-sectarian parliamentary bloc, he is entitled to name a certain number of Christians.
Mr Hariri’s position notwithstanding, there are other issues that have also been raised in the government formation process that have reflected badly on the president. The first is that his approach has been driven by a desire to see Mr Bassil succeed him as president. The second is that by blocking a government, he is drifting into questionable constitutional territory.
Mr Aoun’s desire to name all Christian ministers – like his demand that he name ministers to major portfolios such as the interior, justice, and defence ministries – is apparently destined to have a tight hold over the government for when Mr Aoun’s term ends in 2022. Mr Bassil had initially demanded a so-called blocking third in the government. In that way he could bring the government down before Mr Aoun’s departure if all his ministers resign, and use the vacuum to blackmail other politicians into voting for him as president.
It is unclear whether Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil have given up on this condition. A statement last week from the presidential palace stated that the president had not demanded a blocking third. It is entirely unclear, however, if Mr Bassil agrees. Whatever the truth, by demanding ministries involved in domestic security and justice issues, Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil seek to open corruption files against their political rivals and leverage this into support for a Bassil presidency.
A second problem is that Mr Aoun appears to have overstepped his constitutional role in the government formation process. The constitution is vague, saying only that once a prime minister is designated by parliament, he “shall conduct the parliamentary consultations involved in forming a cabinet.” The decree establishing the cabinet though must be co-signed with the president.
Mr Aoun has interpreted his signatory role as veto power over any government of which he does not approve. Yet such power would effectively mean the president forms the government. The revised constitution of 1990 was notable for curtailing presidential power in the cabinet’s favour, so it would be odd for it to allow the president to establish the government, albeit indirectly.
Mr Aoun’s approach, if normalised, implies eroding the powers of the Sunni prime minister. This has generated Sunni unanimity behind Mr Hariri. It is all too apparent that if Mr Hariri does not form a government, no Sunni will be willing to do so in his place. That is what makes Mr Aoun’s position so reckless, at a time when Lebanon is facing economic ruin on top of a serious Covid-19 crisis. Beyond Mr Bassil’s interests, he seems indifferent to the welfare of his people.
What is the way out of this impasse? For the moment there seems to be no solution, nor does it appear yet that Hezbollah, the main power broker in the country, wants to alienate Mr Aoun by pushing him to make concessions. However, it is uncertain how long the party can allow the situation to deteriorate, as the Hezbollah's Shiite base is suffering like everyone else in Lebanon.
If the deadlock reaches the point where Hezbollah’s domestic and regional interests are threatened, the party could try to impose a median solution. Yet the context has changed. Initially, when Mr Hariri agreed to head a government, he said he would create a “working cabinet” to implement reforms asked for by France and the international community, to unlock foreign funding to Lebanon. Today, the French have all but given up on the Lebanese political class.
When Lebanon’s economic crisis occurred a year ago, many Lebanese understood that the corrupt politicians in power would block any true reform in the country to protect their interests. They could not have imagined, however, that the situation would be even worse than that. Five months after the horrific explosion in Beirut port, the sordid politicians are still fiddling while Lebanon burns.
Michael Young is a Lebanon columnist for The National