BEIRUT: Amid the five hours of meetings between the Lebanese prime minister designate and the leaders of the various political factions of the new Parliament, one stood out in particular.
Saad Hariri, who was nominated to keep his position last week, came face to face with the man once accused of being involved in the assassination of his father — the pro-Syrian MP Jamil Al-Sayyed.
Al-Sayyed was Lebanon’s intelligence chief during the years that Syria dominated the country after the civil war ended in 1990.
He resigned in 2005, shortly after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive car bomb, and was imprisoned for four years until the case against him collapsed. Al-Sayyed, who is close to Bashar Assad, was released without charge.
While he officially stood as an independent candidate, he made clear that he was supportive of Hezbollah — the Iranian-backed movement also allied with Assad and whose members are on trial at the UN-backed Special Tribunal over Rafik Hariri’s murder.
The meeting between Hariri and Al-Sayyed on Monday lasted less than 10 minutes, but highlighted the prime minister’s weakened position after his Future Movement performed badly in the election while Hezbollah’s allies made significant gains.
After the meeting, the first between the two, Al-Sayyed said that he was keen to talk at length about his “political detention.”
He said Hariri “showed a full understanding of the previous stage and the circumstances that accompanied it, and tried to tell me that we are drawing a line between the past and the present regardless of the existing political dispute, which will remain.”
During the non-binding parliamentary consultations on forming the next government, the different parliamentary blocs presented their requests to Hariri for ministerial positions.
The bloc led by Amal leader Nabih Berri, the Parliament’s speaker, insisted on the finance ministry along with three other ministers.
The Future Movement called for the formation of a “national integration government that includes no more than 30 ministers, with fair representation of regions” and for the inclusion of women ministers in the government.
The Strong Lebanon bloc, headed by Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, asked for either the finance or interior ministry. The Hezbollah bloc asked for “an important ministry because it is our right, and the revival of the ministry of planning.”
After the meetings, Hariri appeared unconcerned that the government could not be formed as soon as possible. He said he was optimistic and “we want a national unity government and everyone has agreed to speed up its formation because of the challenges we face.”
The formation of the previous government headed by Hariri took 22 days at the end of 2016 and was composed of 30 ministers. It was called “the government of trust.”
If Hariri manages to form a government that satisfies the parliamentary blocs, the new administration would then have to prepare a statement that adopts a position on various issues, including the weapons of Hezbollah, defense strategy and economic reforms.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s report on the implementation of a 2004 Security Council resolution on Lebanon criticized “the maintenance by Hezbollah of sizable and sophisticated military capabilities outside the control of the government of Lebanon.”
“It remains a fundamental anomaly that a political party maintains a militia that has no accountability to the democratic, governmental institutions of the state, but has the power to take that state to war.”
In further international pressure on Hezbollah’s increased prominence in Lebanon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that the US would review its financial and military assistance to Lebanon because of the election and the growing role of Hezbollah in Syria.
For Hariri, the coming weeks of negotiations will only become increasingly uncomfortable.