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LEBANON: New government greeted mostly with pessimism and a dash of hope

November 10, 2009 |  1:17 pm

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Even while the Lebanese press and many analysts welcomed the new Cabinet and national unity government in Tuesday's papers, many harbored doubts over whether Prime Minister Saad Hariri will be able to bridge the deep divisions between his coalition and the opposition, supported by Syria and Iran.

"Government of the Two Trenches," read a headline carried in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is considered to be close to the opposition.

Lebanon's national unity government received warm plaudits amid the questions over whether the rival U.S. and Saudi-backed majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition would be able to set aside their long-running disputes to work together. 

The new government underwent internal tussles over distribution of ministerial posts even in the first hours after its formation on Monday.

In his address to the Lebanese people on Monday night, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri spoke of his hopes for future cooperation among Lebanon’s political factions. And Michel Aoun, leader of the opposition-aligned Free Patriotic Movement, told Al-Jazeera television that he had confidence in Hariri and echoed the prime minister's words of turning the page.

“The difficult period is over. A new page has been turned to strengthen security and to enhance the economy as well as implement development projects on the national level,” he said.

Across the Mediterranean, the European Union’s high representative for the Common Foreign and Security, Javier Solana, extended a warm greeting to the new government and emphasized the importance of Lebanon having a stable government when it takes on its new role as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council next year. 

But Solana also made sure to send a friendly reminder to concerned parties, pleading them to act “constructively” for the well-being of the region.

“As on other occasions, I call once again on all parties concerned, in Lebanon, in the region and in the international community, to act constructively to recognize and ensure the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Lebanon. Achieving this goal is crucial for the stability of the entire region."

The new Cabinet hit some bumps in the road in its first hours when reports surfaced Monday night that the Christian Kataeb party, an ally of the Hariri coalition, had threatened to withdraw from the majority coalition because its demands for the education ministry had not been met.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim Kanaan, an MP with the opposition's Change and Reform bloc, told The Times that he was not completely satisfied with the distribution of portfolios, saying his bloc "achieved what we could."

The new government is now set to tackle a range of issues, including Lebanon’s huge public debt. Then there is the controversial topic of Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal, which is to be left for discussion in the framework of a national dialogue.

“We have agreed this is a national dialogue issue, these weapons are not to be discussed except in the national dialogue,” Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community told The Times.

Hopes are that the new deal will help ease political tensions in the country, but sharp differences and long-running disagreements between the two camps remain. So further complications can be expected.

“There is a low level of trust, and I think it indicated that although the country is calm there is certainly a serious division and a dysfunction that continues and needs to be addressed,” Paul Salem, a Beirut-based Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, told The Times.

Some analysts went as far as to say that Lebanon had not formed a unity government but one of "disunity" and that the Cabinet will only be "united in name" due to deep, unresolved disputes between the rivals, especially concerning Hezbollah's weapons. 

"The formation of this so-called unity government is but a formality," Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told Agence France-Presse.

Also speaking to Agence France-Presse, Rafik Khoury, chief editor of the independent daily Al-Anwar, predicted that the disputes between the Hariri bloc and its rivals would carry on despite the excitement expressed by both sides over the new coalition.

"Let's not kid each other. This government was formed by Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah," said Khoury, in a reference to the Syrian and Saudi heads of state.

"The rival ministers will be at each other's throats at each Cabinet session," he concluded.

-- Alexandra Sandels and Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, center, heads the first meeting of the new Cabinet at the Presidential Palace in Baabda today. Credit: Dalati Nohra / Associated Press

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