Lebanon forms unity government with Hezbollah-led opposition

Friday, July 11, 2008

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora heads the new cabinet.

Lebanese political leaders have agreed to the formation of a 30-member national unity government, in which paramilitary group Hezbollah and its political allies hold effective veto power in the new cabinet. The announcement came seven weeks after the Doha Agreement, which ended an 18-month-long political crisis in Lebanon.

A decree announcing the cabinet was signed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and President Michel Suleiman. Of the 30 member cabinet, 11 seats were given to the pro-Syria, Hezbollah-led opposition, fulfilling a promise of at least one third of the cabinet and giving them the power to veto legislation. The ruling coalition appointed 16 cabinet members, and President Suleiman chose the remaining three.

Only one of the 11 opposition ministers, Labor Minister Mohammad Fneish, is from Hezbollah. The rest are from the organization's Shi'a, Druze and Christian allies. The opposition also secured the coveted posts of Foreign Minister, Telecommunications Minister, and Deputy Premier.

Our differences will not be resolved overnight, but we have decided to resolve them through institutions and dialogue rather than in the streets.

—Prime Minister Fouad Siniora

Elias Murr kept his post as Defense Minister, and the position of Finance Minister was given to Mohammed Shatah, who served as Siniori's senior adviser in the previous cabinet. Education Minister Bahia Hariri, sister of slain Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is the only woman in the new cabinet.

"Our differences will not be resolved overnight," Prime Minister Siniori said, "but we have decided to resolve them through institutions and dialogue rather than in the streets." He says the two main tasks of the new government will be "regaining confidence in the Lebanese political system" and "securing the holding of a transparent parliamentary election".

Under the Doha Agreement signed on May 21, Michel Suleiman became president, and the opposition and the parliamentary majority agreed to form a unity government. However, the formation of the new government was hampered by political squabbles. Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri said the final breakthrough came when Siniora conceded to the opposition by accepting into the cabinet Ali Kanso, former head of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

The two factions arrived at the Doha Agreement after a long series of Hezbollah-led protests against Siniora's government led to fears of a new civil war. In May, 65 people were killed in sectarian clashes initiated by Hezbollah following a government attempt to outlaw their telecommunications systems. The forces of Syrian-backed Hezbollah were largely unopposed by the Lebanese military while taking over Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut but encountered heavy losses attacking Druze controlled areas.

One of the issues expected to be discussed among the new government is the fate of Hezbollah's weapons, which the group claims it needs for defense against a possible Israeli attack. Hezbollah has yet to disarm and even boasted on enhancing it's weaponry status despite it's signing of U.N. resolution 1701, calling for it's disarmament.