Following the parliamentary election in May 2018 and after 9 months of negotiations, designated Prime Minister Saad Hariri was able to form a government in Lebanon. Although it appears to be a national unity government, bringing together almost all political factions in the country, the formation process received a lot of criticism, as it was considered a break from custom and was eventually perceived as Hezbollah's government in many Western circles.
However, to better understand the process this government took to be formed, we need to understand the transition the Lebanese political power-sharing arrangement has undergone through the years.
Although the Lebanese Civil War did not end until 1990, the intifada (uprising) it witnessed on February 6, 1984, served as a benchmark for the post-war cross-religious power-sharing arrangement. The face value of the intifada might appear to have been an “act of resistance” by Muslim left-leaning militias in west Beirut against the state’s oppression, instrumentalized by its security apparatuses mainly controlled by Christian figures under the patronage of then Lebanese president Amine Gemayel. But, in fact, the intifada was a conduit for the structural fragmentation of the state institutions of the post-1943 independence model that served as the first version of the power-sharing arrangement among the different religions until the civil war broke out.
The intifada, spearheaded by the Shia Amal movement and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), defeated the state’s law enforcement apparatuses and drove them away from the capital for the first time ever. Eventually, the two parties established a de facto rule over the state, where the two warlords, Nabih Berri – leader of Amal – and Walid Jumblat – leader of the PSP – monopolized the right to exercise coercive force, leading to the erosion of the centralized Lebanese state.
Even more, the intifada served as the backdrop for the post-war power-sharing arrangement, which saw Christian parties sidelined. The new formula culminated in what came to be known as the Ta’ef agreement that put an end to the war, shifted executive power from the Christian presidency to the Muslim-Sunni premiership and signaled the birth of the 2nd Republic – a new phase in Lebanese politics.
The Old Order
Later, the term “troika” was used to depict the power-sharing arrangement in the 1990s, which saw Rafic Hariri as Prime Minister, Berri (the main player in the 1984 intifada) as the speaker of parliament and Elias Heraoui as president – the weakest link. Joumblat, who reaped the benefits of the military triumph during the war, played a second-to-none role in calibrating Lebanese politics, gaining veto power and an oversized representation in the parliament. Added to that, Syria was awarded custody over Lebanon, giving it “puppet master” status that allowed it to monopolize the role of “peace-guarantor” between the different religions and to become the broker of the Second Republic (Ta’ef Republic).
Meanwhile, the new arrangement in the nascent republic held a clause: with the government in place taking care of reconstruction, development, and socio-economic day-to-day issues, the state’s foreign policy was for the Syrian regime to dictate, which fell in line with its “resistance” rhetoric. This clause allowed the Syrian regime to nurture the emerging armed resistance, namely Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon and allowed the party to be the only armed power operating outside the state. As of 1996, the armed resistance was officially recognized and gained regional acknowledgment through the “April Understanding” brokered by the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The agreement put an end to the cross-border attacks between Israel and Hezbollah and guaranteed both sides the right to resist and protect itself against any aggression.
More recently, all ministerial statements – policy statements that set the general guidelines of the government – in the subsequent governments after the “2008 Doha Agreement”, acknowledged the armed resistance as a parallel to the Lebanese army, putting it in charge of “protecting Lebanon from foreign attacks”.
After the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005 and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the influence of the two Shia parties (Amal and Hezbollah) grew to unprecedented levels. The assassination started a snowball effect which impacted Lebanese politics for the next fifteen years.
With Syria’s wings clipped in Lebanon, in 2005, Michel Aoun – leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and ad interim president from 1988 to 1990 – could return from exile and Samir Geagea – leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) – was released from jail. The return of these two leaders invigorated the Christian constituency in the country, allowing its leadership to reserve itself a seat at the table.
Yet, in fear of Christians’ opening a discussion about the post-Ta’ef power-sharing arrangement, the popular Christian leader, Michel Aoun, faced a Berri-Joumblat-Hariri (Saad, the son) opposition upon his arrival.
Jumblat and Berri had gambled on cornering Aoun in order not to share power, thinking that Aoun’s nationalist anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah rhetoric would prove to be a too heavy load to shed in case he decided to turn against them.
Yet Aoun, in a quick breakaway from his political legacy, shifted his politics 180 degrees, outmaneuvered Berri and Jumblat and signed a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah. The memorandum opened a new phase in Lebanese politics signaling the return of the Christian constituency to the power-sharing equation. Ironically enough, it was signed on February 6, 2006.
Hezbollah’s power and influence grew twofold after it managed to weather the repercussions of the 2006 war with Israel by turning the party’s mere defensive resistance during the war into a so-called “victory”. With a growing military arsenal and a void left by the Syrian withdrawal from the country, the power-sharing arrangement had to be questioned again, eventually creating immeasurable tensions among the different political players in the country. The buildup led to a mini-intifada (or a mini civil war) in May 2008. This mini-intifada, conducted by Hezbollah and Amal, again hit at the heart of executive power, which in the Second Republic meant the premiership occupied by Prime Minister Fouad Sinioura at the time.
The Third Republic
As of 2008, Shias represented by Amal and Hezbollah became partners in the decision-making process while holding veto power over the executive. This was achieved on two levels: first by Hezbollah’s growing military power and arsenal; and secondly by enforcing a new formula for the cabinets’ distribution in the government, which allowed the Shia parties, along with their allies, to account for half of any formed cabinets. Moreover, their political influence grew exponentially following their direct military involvement in the Syrian crisis.
With the war in Syria winding down, Hezbollah emerges as one of the regional political powers partaking of an alliance that stems from the southern suburbs of Beirut, passes through Damascus, Bagdad, Tehran and reaches Red Square in Moscow. Following the Lebanese parliamentary elections in May 2018 and in a break from custom, Hezbollah flexed its muscles, henceforward dictating the process and terms for forming a new government. The party’s role was extremely visible in the prolonged negotiations (9 months) that preceded the formation of the new cabinet headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Today, Hariri wisely understands the limitations of his dwindling leadership and the reduction of the Sunni role in controlling executive power in the country. Therefore, Hariri managed to reach a cohabitation arrangement with his long-time political nemeses, namely Hezbollah and Aoun. The arrangement had previously led to a rapprochement between Hariri and Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil (Aoun’s son-in-law, main advisor and gatekeeper) and culminated in an agreement that saw Michel Aoun as the 17th president of the republic, elected on October 31, 2016.
It’s believed that the new cohabitation arrangement was instigated by Hariri’s need to spare the country a new wave of political violence and to buy his leadership an insurance policy for the coming period. Nevertheless, this relationship is mutually exclusive since Hariri represents a major winning card for his new partners. In fact, to them he is the best man to lead a government that must deal with an ailing economy and mounting international pressure – risking sanctions from the USA.
Henceforth, again on a February 6, in 2019, the day the new Lebanese government saw the light, a new era began in Lebanon cementing a rearranged power-sharing formula with the induction of a “neo-troika” consisting of Hezbollah, Hariri and Bassil. Therefore, the bickering between Berri and Bassil on one side and Jumblat and Hariri on the other is a result of the sidelining of the two figureheads, Berri and Jumblat, of post-Ta’ef Lebanon and one may argue that they are on their way out of the political scene after over three decades of headlining it. Also, with this new power-sharing arrangement Samir Geagea is seen to be struggling to play a major role in government despite the success his party achieved in the recent elections.
Hariri’s dwindling influence must also be seen through the lack of support from his traditional backers, namely Saudi Arabia, which also dealt him a major blow following his alleged November 4, 2017 detainment in Riyadh ordered by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. This erratic move blew Hariri’s regional cover, made him vulnerable and more prone to further concession and compromise. Hence why the cabinet shows signs of further concessions made by Hariri.
However, until today, Hariri has represented an intersection of strategic interests between France and Russia. Yet, with growing Russian influence in the region due to its support to the Syrian regime, Hariri’s concessions, such as handing over the Ministry of Refugees to an outspoken supporter of the Syrian regime and adopting the Russian-led initiative in regard to the return of Syrian refugees – highly opposed by Western powers – in the ministerial statement of his new government, seem to be a form of buying himself a Russian safety net and probably landing a future role in Syria’s much hyped reconstruction process.
Hariri’s repositioning should also be interpreted in a regional context where both the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – Saudi Arabia’s two major allies – are actively normalizing with the Syrian regime despite the US administration’s continuous pressure on its allies to halt the process. However, if Syria is brought back into the Arab fold, and with Hezbollah and Bassil (Hariri’s new partners) both adamantly calling for normalization with the Syrian regime, Hariri cannot survive as the odd man out in the Third Republic.