Hariri's Big Risk

Lebanese prime-minister-in-waiting Saad Hariri has rolled the political dice in presenting a cabinet for approval to the president without a national consensus.

More than three months have passed since the June 7 elections supposedly boosted the pro-western March 14 alliance and curbed the democratic legitimacy of the Hezbollah-led March 8 opposition. However, initial promises for an instant cabinet being formed a week later were quickly dispelled and replaced by a political merry-go-round where the various key players have been engaged in endless rounds of meetings between themselves and their respective external patrons.

As ever, the major questions concern the balance of power in the country, and in particular the assignments of seats within the new "national unity cabinet" itself. Following the election, the formula of 15-10-5 was created (15 to Hariri's March 14, 10 to the Hezbollah-led opposition and five to the president) allowing the president to be the pivot for any opposition boycott. The theory behind the formula is that it avoids both a clear government majority and an opposition veto. A government where the opposition can easily boycott is anathema to those who saw the Cedar Revolution of 2005 and the Hariri June victory as providing an impetus to real change in the country.

Hariri justified his sudden cabinet submission by stating that the opposition does not have the right to indefinitely hold the government hostage. Indeed after he announced his decision he reminded people that "there is only one parliamentary majority in Lebanon." Yet despite being offered the leadership of a third of the cabinet, Hezbollah rejected the decision, deflecting Hariri's critique by arguing that only a unified opposition could join the cabinet.

Speaking at an Iftar dinner, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah implicitly backed Christian ally Michel Aoun's demand for his candidate, son-in-law Jebran Bassil, to hold the telecommunications ministry, giving credence to those who see any Lebanese "unity" cabinet simply as a "patronage pie" of ministries and titles that are doled out to the respective parties. Bassil appeared on television shortly after Hariri's announcement to claim that his party was being "politically persecuted".

Hariri's decision appears a calculated gamble. Having the cabinet rejected may show up the inability of the 39-year-old billionaire to form the consensus that Lebanon has historically required for political stability. Hariri has, after all, overstepped the mark before, his decision to go after Hezbollah weapons and communications infrastructure (hence opposition concern over the leadership of the telecoms ministry) led to the opposition's takeover of Beirut and a radical rebalancing of power in the country, creating the conditions that would eventually lead members of his own alliance to distance themselves from him (i.e., the defection of Walid Jumblatt).

The alternative argument would see Hariri's decision not as a gamble, but rather as the logical next step, occurring within the framework of his constitutional prerogatives. The control over the process is now out of his hands, Hariri has ushered the ball into President Sleiman's court, therefore avoiding further blame for the political deadlock resting within his office.

Beyond these domestic factors it is important to assess the extent to which external factors are playing a role in events. Hariri may be playing a smarter game reliant on insider knowledge of the results of recent meetings between the Syrians and the Saudis, whose rapprochement could give him a stronger hand than Hezbollah could have predicted. Interestingly the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) didn't cover the event at all, while Iranian funded Press TV unsurprisingly focused largely on Nasrallah's negative response to Hariri's decision.

If Sleiman rejects Hairi's cabinet then the entire process will have to start again from scratch, further undermining faith in the Lebanese political structure's ability to function. Observers of current events, in the Iraqi political arena in particular, will be conscious of the snail's pace and potential for slippage that occurs in such national unity polity. Despite the absence of violence shielding events from global media attention, the current struggle for political agreement is a critical test of the Lebanese state.