Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Lebanon: A year without Shiite ministers

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/11/2007

I wonder if I’m going to read this headline in tomorrow’s press. I sincerely doubt it… for many reasons. Firstly, the title isn’t very accurate (not that Lebanon’s press has been very accurate in its headings lately). Assuredly, it’s been a year since the three Shiite ministers have resigned, but their resignation hasn’t been accepted yet. This is one of the many tools of Lebanese ostrich politics. The person who mastered this tool for the longest period is undeniably Amin Gemayel who refused the resignation of Rachid Karame’s cabinet for years. His refusal even survived the death of the Prime Minister (assassinated in 1987). When he finally decided to accept it in 1988, the minister of education Selim Hoss of the outgoing government, declared that he had as acting Prime Minister withdrawn it. He then declared himself Prime Minister with the functions of interim President and refused to recognise the appointment of Michel Aoun.
So what we’ve had for a year is a government with five resigning ministers. Grammatically, the use of a present participle, “resigning” in such a case does sound quite odd. In French, stretching the word “démissionnaire” over a year is sure to surprise many. The Arabic equivalent is mustaqeel, which literally means “who has resigned”. The word “mustaqeel” gives the impression that the action is over, accomplished, while in fact (and in law) it’s not, their resignation is awaiting the acceptance of the Prime Minister to be completed and legally effective.

So why is the situation so? Why hasn’t the Prime Minister accepted the resignation of these three ministers? As things in Lebanon are always more complicated than they seem (even when they are obviously rather complicated), one can add another enlightening detail about local ostrich politics: the Prime Minister has appointed an acting minister of Foreign Affairs without accepting the resignation of the resigning minister!?!

Interestingly enough, the press jumps head on into this kind of absurdity. Pro-government journalists are scandalised each time Fawzi Salloukh acts as Foreign Minister and blocks decisions taken by the acting minister of Foreign Affairs, the actual minister of Culture Tarek Mitri!? When one tries to reason with them and tell them that it is his right to do so, they answer that he has resigned. When you tell them that his resignation is still pending the acceptance of the PM, they answer that he has been boycotting the council of ministers and hasn’t been to his office at the ministry for months. This is undeniably politically unacceptable because he is supposed to pursue his duties until his resignation is accepted. But instead of appointing a caretaker for this particularly important function, his resignation should be accepted and he should be replaced. This is what would have happened in any other democracy. But PM Fuad Siniora has refused to do so these last 12 months.

The only way to understand such political behaviour is to try to imagine what would have happened if the resignation had been accepted.

scenario 1: there would have been no Shiite in the Lebanese government: no minister to represent Lebanon’s largest community. And other ministers (newly appointed or not) would have replaced them in their function. This would have seemed quite shocking to many Lebanese and it would have been difficult to claim that the government is a legitimate one when one of the main political blocks and communities is excluded from it.

scenario 2: the Prime Minister would have replaced the pro-Amal and pro-Hezbollah ministers by other Shiite ministers representing other political groups or not representing. The Amal and Hezbollah blocks would have certainly reacted to this designation very strongly. It’s not sure that the government would have been able to find 5 shiite ministers willing to oppose the main representatives of the Shiite community (in and out of Parliament). And even if they had, it’s not sure that they would have sustained the social and political pressure that would have be exerted on them from their co-religionists.

Either way, the government would have had to deal with the political crisis. By not accepting their resignation, it was entering a new status quo, that had very little political consequences within the pro-government and the opposition parties. The price the country would pay for it was obviously overlooked for it would be invariably blamed on the opponent.

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