With reports that a new Lebanese government could be close to being finalized, Hussain Abdul-Hussain asks whether we should care one way or the other given the cabinet’s near certain irrelevance
Cabinet-formation in Lebanon has dominated the news over the past months. But even for experts, the dizzying number of names and possible line-ups have reconfirmed a common perception that the state of Lebanon, its president, parliament and cabinet have become as irrelevant as their tedious bickering.
The Lebanese media routinely report on oligarchs either meeting, or sending their delegates to meet, other oligarchs. Lebanese media have become obsessed with post-meeting statements, or even gestures, such as he “smiled,” he “nodded,” or he “threatened” to blow up the system if he or his bloc did not get the number of cabinet seats that they had requested.
Lebanon’s ministerial portfolios are ranked according to their importance. The most prized are the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, defense and finance, which are called “sovereign.” Then there are the lucrative portfolios, namely the Ministry of Energy (with possible oil exploration and production contracts), the Ministry of Telecommunications, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Public Works.
Meanwhile, the ministry that Hezbollah wants to control the most, or have one of its allies control, is the Ministry of Justice, which can undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that has indicted five Hezbollah operatives for their alleged roles in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
At the tail end are the consolation prize ministries, which include labor, education, transport, economy, social affairs and environment. Some partisans are even rewarded with ministries of nothing and hold the title “Minister of State”.
“Legislators, in big blocs and small, believe it is their right to be “represented” in the cabinet, only because they were elected to Parliament”
Since the parliamentary election in May, and the consequent call on incumbent Prime Minister Saad Hariri to form a new cabinet, the various offered ministerial line-ups have been divorced of any policy or vision. There is no specific direction that Hariri envisions for the country. There are no themes that he likes to work on. There is only an endless process of ego management.
What makes matter worse is the Lebanese misconception of the cabinet as a “representative” body. Legislators, in big blocs and small, believe it is their right to be “represented” in the cabinet, only because they were elected to Parliament. In addition to them, everyone who is someone in Lebanon also thinks that he (rarely a she) has a considerable popular following, and as such deserves to be in the cabinet.
Imagining the cabinet as a mini-Parliament has undermined both. When everyone is represented in the cabinet, there is little supervision that Parliament can do. And, when the cabinet is formed of every which political power, paralysis dominates.
Hence, the haggling over candidates for ministries has not observed any specific criteria. Ministers are not required to have experience relevant to whichever portfolio they receive, or any experience at all. If they are politically influential, or backed by the powerful Hezbollah, they can insist on whatever ministry they want. Physicians end up running the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of Public Works, army generals get portfolios of health or finance.
The business of becoming a minister has become such a prize in Lebanese politics that almost everyone has either been, or seeks to become, a member of cabinet, so much so that, aside from Hariri, all the oligarchs — Michel Aoun before he became president, Samir Geagea, Walid Jumblatt and now Suleiman Franjieh — perceive a seat in the cabinet as unbefitting their stature. Cabinet seats have become prizes with which the oligarchs reward their partisans.
“Cabinet formation in Lebanon is rarely about forming a homogeneous team that can successfully execute policies”
Cabinet formation in Lebanon is rarely about forming a homogeneous team that can successfully execute policies. Cabinet formation in Lebanon resembles the state and its affairs: A bazaar where policies are slogans and where personalities trump expertise.
It is unfathomable why the Lebanese media insists on broadcasting updates on the formation of Lebanon’s inconsequential cabinet, with exhaustive headlines about the effort to untie the “Druze knot,” or “the Sunni knot,” or whatever knot that no one knows who tied in the first place and why it is imperative to have it untied.
It remains unfortunate that the only real news in Lebanon is whenever Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah shows up on TV to say what should or should not happen.
As for the Lebanese cabinet, Parliament, and president, if these vanished overnight, few would notice. After all, a country that managed — a few years back — to live without a president, with a shutdown parliament, and without an acting cabinet, could certainly live forever without the irrelevant Lebanese state.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti daily al Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London