Key players in Lebanon's future take their place

BEIRUT — Celebratory gunfire and fireworks filled the sky in Beirut over the weekend as billionaire businessman and Lebanese politician Saad Hariri received 86 votes in the 128 seat parliament to be chosen as Lebanon’s new prime minister.

Hariri, 39, will now assume the post his father held for more than nine years before he was killed in a massive car bomb in 2005 that caused Saad to leave his position as head of the family business and assume his father’s political mantle.

"We will begin consultations with all parliamentary blocs," Hariri said after meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to formalize his position as prime minister designate on Saturday.

Hariri spent the rest of the weekend winding through the streets of Beirut in a convoy of black and white armored SUV’s, visiting Lebanon’s living former prime ministers. Sunday and Monday he met with politicians of all stripes in preparation for the horse trading that will eventually lead to the formation of a new cabinet.

But his biggest meeting was last week, with his former adversaries: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun (all of whom head parties that belong to a coalition known as March 8).

These meetings came as news reports circulated of continued reconciliation between long-standing regional enemies Syria and Saudi Arabia. Syria backs the Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah and their Christian allies in March 8. Saudi Arabia, along with the U.S., backs the Sunni Hariri and his Christian and Druze allies in the so-called March 14 coalition.

March 14 won the Lebanese elections on June 7, garnering 71 seats to March 8’s 57.

The vote seemed to result in reconciliation in Beirut until Sunday night, when Hariri’s Future Movement Party members fought running gun battles with March 8 supporters not far from Hariri’s mansion in Beirut.

One woman was killed and the Lebanese army deployed to prevent the fighting from spreading. Some Lebanese news agencies attributed the unusual outbreak of violence to the heightened tensions caused by the celebratory gun fire both sides have been unleashing since last Thursday, when Berri, the leader of the March 8 party Amal, was reelected as speaker of the Parliament for the fourth time.

The clashes were reminiscent of the fighting that took place in May 2008, when March 8 gunmen took over west Beirut, leaving dozens dead. Lebanese canceled Sunday night plans, and television news updated the breaking news. On Monday, at least 15 Lebanese Army armored vehicles were seen posted to the areas where the fighting took place. Later in the evening a dozen armored personnel carriers rolled down Hamra street, a major thoroughfare in the city, a scene not seen here since last spring’s violence.

Other aspects of the fighting were familiar as well; a similar debate is taking place now over a subject that led it to erupt in 2008: veto power in the cabinet. Hezbollah demanded the veto because it said Hariri’s coalition was seeking to disarm the group, which has a standing militia and an estimated 30,000 rockets, which it says are needed to defend against Israel.

But the rhetoric is far different than it was in 2008. So far, Hezbollah and its allies have not demanded veto power in the cabinet, as they did in November 2006. Back then, when March 8’s wishes were not met, the parties boycotted parliament and the cabinet, bringing government operations to a standstill. They proceeded to occupy downtown Beirut with a sit-in that lasted 18 months and risked dragging the country into another civil war by taking the fight to the streets to achieve their goals.

But Hariri has not demanded the group relinquish its weapons, and only a few members of the March 8 opposition have demanded veto power; none of them have been Hezbollah or the group’s Christian ally, Michel Aoun, which are the two major blocs in March 8, and the ones that really matter.

“The position of the opposition has never been voiced up till now,” said Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Mousawi in an interview with GlobalPost last week at his office. “They will voice an official position as soon as the parliamentary majority comes out with a proposal. What you hear here and there is something that is being suggested in this transitional period. So people are voicing what they think… All these things are acceptable, but do not necessarily mean this is the opposition’s position.”

Hariri has been amicable, speaking of the need for a government of “national unity.” And now the negotiations over a cabinet have begun. News reports say Hariri is offering Hezbollah and its allies 10 seats in a 30 seat cabinet. March 14 would hold 16 seats, and President Michel Suleiman would get 4. That means Hezbollah wouldn’t have veto power — which requires one-third plus one, but it would have to convince a member of the majority or of the president’s bloc to join forces in order to impose a veto.

A government isn’t expected to be formed for at least three weeks; negotiations could take longer.

Part of what makes the process so complicated and unpredictable is that the Lebanese Constitution does not stipulate how a cabinet should be formed. There is definitely no mention of a veto. But the constitution does say that all members of the country’s sects should be represented in the government.

“The debate about the veto is essentially a debate about the viability of Lebanon's current political system,” wrote blogger and Lebanese political observer Elias Muhanna in Foreign Policy magazine last week. “Raising questions about how consensus-based decision-making can coexist with an effective executive mandate, and how the interests of confessional minorities might be preserved under the tyranny of political majorities.”

In the end, whether Hezbollah gets a veto or not, they always have it on the streets. The group can easily take west Beirut by force again, and get its way.

The Israelis are also watching the proceedings in Beirut closely. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Lebanon would be held responsible for any Hezbollah attacks against Israel should the party join the next government.

More on the Lebanese elections:

Where does Hezbollah go from here?

Lebanon's ruling coalition wins unexpected victory

Going rate for a vote in Lebanon? $700