4 months on, Lebanon still with no government

Four months after Hezbollah toppled Lebanon's unity government, arduous negotiations on forming a new cabinet that will exclude the pro-Western camp are ongoing, with no clear end to the talks in sight.
Prime minister-designate Najib Mikati, appointed with the blessing of Hezbollah, has held a string of meetings this week with President Michel Sleiman as well as representatives of the Shiite militant group and its allies in a bid to speed up the cabinet formation.
An official close to Mikati said that while there was "progress", nothing had been finalised.
"We cannot say when this government will see the light," he said, requesting anonymity.
At the centre of the government hold-up has been a feud between Sleiman and Hezbollah's Christian ally Michel Aoun over the coveted interior ministry, charged with overseeing domestic security.
Sleiman in two consecutive governments has appointed the minister.
But Aoun, a former army commander and head of the largest single parliamentary bloc, has insisted a military official of his choice be appointed to the seat.
"The problem is not portfolios," MP Ibrahim Kanaan, of Aoun's Change and Reform bloc, said.
"The problem is that the prime minister-designate does not seem to have the political will to form a government."
The Lebanese constitution does not set any deadline for a prime minister -- a Sunni Muslim appointed by the president based on consultations with MPs -- to form his cabinet and the process in the past has taken months.
Observers say that the bickering over the new cabinet is not limited to the interior ministry but extends to other portfolios. They also point to the unrest in neighbouring Syria, which has long held sway in Lebanese politics.
"Syria is still Lebanon's kingmaker, but right now Damascus is busy with its own domestic issues and has left the Lebanese to their own means," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
"So our politicians are free to bicker among themselves and show the world we are incapable of ruling ourselves."
Damascus has a history of troubled ties with Beirut. It pulled its troops from Lebanon under massive international pressure following the February 14, 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, ending 29 years of military domination.
The cabinet of Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader, collapsed on January 12 in a feud over a UN-backed court investigating the 2005 assassination.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to indict members of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in connection with Hariri's murder.
Saad Hariri and his allies have refused to join Mikati's cabinet, arguing it would be controlled by Hezbollah, which has demanded Lebanon end all cooperation with the tribunal.
Mikati has not publicly made any commitments on the tribunal, and the United Nations has warned internal divisions over the court put Lebanon at increased risk of violence.
The government stalemate has meanwhile prompted warnings that the country's economy, which has managed to weather the global crisis, could begin to suffer.
Acting finance minister Raya al-Hassan recently said her ministry would soon be unable to pay the salaries of state employees.
Plagued by irreconcilable political differences, Hariri's government had been unable to pass the state budget for 2010 and the 2011 budget also remains blocked.
But if and when the next government sees the light of day, Lebanon's problems are only beginning, experts say.
"The real issues will come to the fore after the government is formed," said Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
"Working on subjects like the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the resistance (Hezbollah) and Lebanon's compliance with international resolutions will add further complications," Shehadi said.
"These factors combined are enough to completely block any future negotiations."