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Prime Minister Hariri forms new unity government

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has formed a new unity government that includes two ministers from Syrian-backed Hezbollah.


AFP - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri formed a government of national unity on Monday, ending more than four months of tough negotiations with his Hezbollah-led rivals.

"Finally, a government of national unity is born," Hariri told reporters after a presidential decree announcing the new cabinet line-up was announced.

"We have turned a new page and there is no turning back," he added.

"I want to be honest from the start: this government can be a chance to renew faith in the state and its institutions ... or it can turn into a replay of our failures."

The new line-up includes 15 ministers from Hariri's bloc and 10 from the opposition.

The remaining five ministers were appointed by President Michel Sleiman, including the holders of the key interior and defence portfolios.

Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which fought a devastating 2006 war with Israel, has two ministers in the new cabinet.

The share-out means that no party will have veto power in the new government and that Sleiman will play the role of arbiter.

"I know previous experience is not encouraging and I know Lebanon has suffered more than its share of tragic events," Hariri said, referring to the political upheavals that have shaken Lebanon in recent years.

"I don't want to make empty promises," he added. "My only promise is to work hard with all parties and to pave the way for renewed faith in Lebanon."

Among the key issues facing the new government are Lebanon's mountainous national debt which is projected to top 50 billion dollars this year and Hezbollah's weapons stockpile.

The militant group, which remains blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington, is the only Lebanese faction that has refused to disarm since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Hariri, 39, the son of murdered former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was asked to form a cabinet after his US- and Saudi-backed alliance won a general election in June.

But his efforts to form a new unity government with the opposition stumbled because of bickering between the two sides on the distribution of portfolios and the choice of ministers.

Among the major bones of contention was a demand by Christian leader Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, to retain the sensitive telecommunications ministry.

Hariri initially rejected the demand but finally agreed to it in a bid to break the deadlock.

The standoff between the rival camps softened last month amid a thaw in relations between their main regional sponsors Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was eager to see the new government finalised before his departure for France later this week, Lebanese media reported. France was the colonial power in both Lebanon and Syria.

Syria was the power broker in its smaller neighbour for nearly 30 years before the 2005 murder of Rafiq Hariri, who was close to the Saudi monarchy.

The United Nations had joined Western governments in voicing concern over the deadlock in Lebanon, which they warned could have repercussions for the country's economy and security.

A political crisis erupted in 2006 when all Shiite cabinet ministers resigned. It climaxed on May 7, 2008 when more than 100 people were killed in sectarian fighting that took the country to the brink of renewed civil war.

A Qatari-brokered deal led to the formation of a national unity government in which Hezbollah and its allies had veto power over key decisions.

But that cabinet had not met since the June election. It was an acting government only and could not make administrative appointments or take major decisions.

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