BEIRUT: Wednesday marked seven months since Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam was nominated for the premiership, the longest an appointee has held the post without forming a government. As the Cabinet formation enters its eighth month this week, Salam breaks the record set by late Prime Minister Rashid Karami as the premier-designate who took the longest to form a Cabinet since Lebanon’s independence in 1943.
Following the resignation of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government on March 22, Salam gained near unanimous backing for the premiership, with 124 out of 128 MPs nominating him for the post.
But after seven months, Salam’s efforts to form a Cabinet have hit a dead end, with rival March 8 and March 14 parties standing firm on conflicting views over the government’s formation.
March 8 parties, spearheaded by Hezbollah, call for the formation of a national unity government that represents political parties proportional to their seats in Parliament. Such a formula would grant Hezbollah and its allies veto power in the new Cabinet.
But the Future Movement and other March 14 political groups back a neutral government, arguing that an all-embracing government cannot be created until Hezbollah withdraws its fighters from Syria.
The span of the current Cabinet crisis exceeds that of 1969, which lasted for seven months. On April 24 of that year, Karami, nominated by President Charles Helou, resigned over divisions in support for the activities of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. After months of impasse that included armed clashes between PLO fighters and the Army, Karami, whose nomination was refloated by Helou, formed his Cabinet on Nov. 25.
This came more than three weeks after the signing of the 1969 Cairo Agreement which allowed the PLO to run refugee camps in Lebanon and launch operations against Israel from the south.
According to Sami Nader, an economist and international relations professor, none of the rival camps in Lebanon were ready to make concessions and reach common ground, a move that would facilitate Cabinet’s formation.
“Hezbollah does not want to abandon its demand for veto power,” Nader told The Daily Star. “It believes that the circumstances that forced it to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Mikati’s government, after the retreat of Damascus, have changed,” Nader added. “[Hezbollah believes that] today the regime is catching its breath and there are signs of an Iranian-American rapprochement, this prompted it to take a tough stance again.”
Nader said that on the other hand, Lebanese parties allied with Saudi Arabia, mainly the Future Movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, were not ready to concede to Hezbollah.
“They do not want to grant veto power or accept the supremacy of the group, which is allied to Iran,” he said.
“The Future Movement believes it holds the card of Sunni representation, which gives legitimacy to any national unity government, and is not ready to abandon this card,” Nader said. “In the meantime, it is ready to back a technocratic government that can address the needs of the people.”
Nader said he believed a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement was a prerequisite for the formation of Lebanon’s Cabinet.
“If a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement happens and an agreement is reached to manage differences, acknowledging that a Sunni-Shiite warfare would destroy both countries and would not bring peace to Lebanon and the region, then a government in Lebanon can be formed,” he said.
While Lebanon witnessed several Cabinet crises before and during the 1975-90 Civil War, governments were formed with relative ease between 1990 and 2005 after the 1989 Taif Accord and Syria’s tutelage over Lebanon.
In April 2003, then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri resigned from his post, was renominated and formed a new government within the same week.
But forming a government has become a lengthy process once again following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005 in the wake of Hariri’s assassination.
Over two months after he was nominated for premiership on June 27, 2009, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down on Sept. 10. He was re-nominated later the same month and was able to form his government on Nov. 9.
With the collapse of Hariri’s government and the nomination of Mikati on Jan. 25, 2011, Mikati spent over four months assembling his government, which was born in June 2011.