The Prime Minister and the Cabinet

Lebanon Table of Contents

As noted, the president is constitutionally empowered to appoint the prime minister and the cabinet. Although a prime minister need not be a member of the Chamber of Deputies, this has usually been the case, particularly because the president must consult with the deputies before naming a prime minister. The president and the prime minister deliberate over the composition of the cabinet and present the nominees to the Chamber of Deputies to solicit a vote of confidence.

As the highest Muslim political official, the prime minster can bring a significant amount of authority to his position, and indeed this may have been the intent of Lebanon's "founding fathers." In practice, however, the power of the prime minister has varied according to his personality, his base of support, and the preferences of the president he served. A distinguished prime minister can enhance the prestige of the president, and the office has been held by some fairly capable politicians, including Riyad as Sulh, Saib Salam, and Rashid Karami.

Clearly, a prime minister's constitutionally mandated power is small, and over the years his most effective methods of action have been informal. His resignation could embarrass a president, influence popular opinion, and increase Muslim opposition. He could induce the Chamber of Deputies to voice a vote of no confidence and force the president to reappoint a new list of ministers, thereby stalling for a time governmental operations. In the end, however, these informal weapons were virtually inconsequential in comparison with the arsenal at the president's disposal. If a prime minister's actions caused a president dismay, the minister could be dismissed and replaced with a more pliable individual. For example, in 1973 when Salam resigned as prime minister to protest the government's refusal to oppose with force Israeli attacks, President Franjiyah nominated a political unknown to the post. Although the nomination was defeated, the eventual replacement was decidedly less resistant than Salam. Since the 1975 Civil War, the president has been forced to treat his prime minister with greater deference, but in the late 1980s the balance of political power in what remained of the official government was essentially unchanged from the prewar status.

In theory, the cabinet is the vehicle through which the country is administered. It is supposed to set policy, prepare legislative bills, and appoint or dismiss top members of the bureaucracy. Historically, however, ministers have often used their positions to increase their patronage within their constituencies and to add to their personal wealth. Unlike some other nations, in which the president appoints a group of like-minded officials to the cabinet, in Lebanon cabinets are often intricately formed bodies, designed to accommodate diverse sectarian interests. Consequently, they sometimes have degenerated into arenas for political sniping and backroom machinations, with ever-changing coalitions and factions being formed. It has not been uncommon for intracabinet antipathies to paralyze the business of government. In the late 1980s, some members of the cabinet were not even on speaking terms, and the Muslim members boycotted the president for more than a year.

Any Lebanese can be appointed as a minister, but most often influential zuama have held these positions. Less frequently, for example during the 1975 Civil War, technocrats have been called upon to serve as ministers. And, for a few days in 1975, military officers held ministerial slots. In general, certain ministries have been reserved for the various sects; as a consequence, cabinets have not been noted for their efficiency. One example of the anomalies that can develop because of these circumstances is the 1955 cabinet in which a Sunni ex-diplomat headed the Ministry of Public Works, while a Maronite engineer became the foreign minister.

There is no set number of ministries, but historically it has fluctuated between four and twenty-two, expanding and contracting according to political exigencies. Sometimes a minister has held more than one portfolio; as of early 1987, there were ten ministers holding among them sixteen portfolios. And, as with much of Lebanese politics, members of the same privileged families have tended to hold cabinet positions. As an indication of postwar reform, however, and in recognition of the growing Shia population, in 1984 the Ministry of State for the South and Reconstruction was created.

Typically, because of constant political pressures, cabinets have been ephemeral. Between 1926 and 1964, the average life of each cabinet was less than eight months. Even though cabinets were in an almost constant state of dissolution and reformation, the same men tended to be reappointed to the same or other posts. For example, 333 ministerial posts were occupied by only 134 individuals from 1926 to 1963.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress