Christians Resist Joining Cabinet
LEBANON: NATIONAL UNITY GOVERNMENT
THE world has recognized Lebanon's new president and the prime minister he appointed as the next step in an Arab-sponsored peace process. But it is unclear whether the government that Prime Minister Selim Hoss is trying to put together will be able to impose its authority over the Christian enclave, where hard-line leader Gen. Michel Aoun is tightening his grip.
If General Aoun cannot be budged, analysts believe the peace plan - agreed to by Lebanese parliamentary deputies on Oct. 22 after three weeks of meetings in Saudi Arabia - may not be able to proceed much further.
They foresee a lengthy period of division, with the new government accepted only in the Syrian-controlled areas and Aoun digging in in the enclave.
The general and his supporters reject the peace plan, because it makes practical provisions for only a partial and phased Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, though it calls in general terms for Lebanese state sovereignty to be restored throughout the country.
Against many predictions, the backers and sponsors of the plan met their target of having a new president elected by parliament before Nov. 7. Ren'e Muawad, himself a deputy from the north of the country and, like Aoun, a Maronite Christian, was elected in north Lebanon Nov. 5.
A week later, President Muawad appointed Dr. Hoss, a respected and experienced Sunni Muslim politician, as his prime minister. But the next major step - the formation of a national-unity government has proved harder to accomplish.
Hoss's problem was to find credible and prominent Christian figures from inside the enclave to take part in his government. Unless they could be drawn in, it would be hard to undermine Aoun's two main pillars of support - Christian public opinion and his loyal army units.
The key figure in this political tug of war was Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian militia known as the Lebanese Forces. He had discreetly supported the peace plan, but refrained from championing it publicly for fear of triggering a clash between his militia and Aoun's army.
Mr. Geagea is Aoun's only real potential rival in the enclave, and his participation in the Hoss government would have opened up many possibilities. But sources close to both men say Geagea has assured the general he will not take part in the Cabinet.
Aoun had made it clear that anyone who did participate would be expected to leave the enclave and stay out. That goes for George Saadeh, the leader of the Phalangists, the oldest and biggest right-wing Christian political party. Dr. Saadeh, a deputy, played a key part in getting the peace plan passed by parliament.
Aoun's aides are confident that he can consolidate his position in the enclave and survive any pressures from outside.
``The situation is stable, and the balance of power in our favor,'' said an aide. ``There is no competition in our area. Anybody who wants to join the Hoss government can go - and stay [there].''
``There will be no compromise, no participation from the enclave in the Hoss Cabinet, and no security problems in our area,'' said another aide. ``We may have tactical differences with the Lebanese Forces [militia], but our strategy is one.''
In an interview shortly before his appointment as prime minister, Hoss believed it would be possible to find a credible Christian officer willing to accept the post of Army commander - mounting an open challenge to Aoun.
The peace plan's backers hope that such an appointment would drain military support away from the general. But skeptics say there is no sign of even a crack in the fighting units' loyalty to Aoun. Although some high-ranking officers are known to be critical of Aoun, it will be hard to find anyone willing to stand up against him, they say.
Supporters of the peace plan also hope that diplomatic isolation and a cut in funds from the Central Bank will undermine Aoun's position. His aides disagree.
``If we survived Syrian military operations for six months, and the blockade, we can survive something diplomatic,'' said one aide. ``It's peanuts. As for money - the Lebanese will always find a way. We're prepared for a cut. Our requirements are ensured for as long as it takes.''