February 24, 2011 13:35
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Prospects for a New Lebanese Government
By Majdoline Hatoum
February 23, 2011
Lebanon's Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has a tough job ahead: forming a cabinet strong enough to endure the political storm expected to rise from the findings of the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) on the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hizbollah’s role in naming Mikati has led the March 14 camp (under whose umbrella he ran during the 2005 parliamentary elections) to label him a tool in Hizbollah’s plan to control the cabinet and to discredit the STL’s anticipated implication of the party. Mikati—a multi-billionaire Sunni businessman who is credited with having overseen the highly polarized 2005 parliamentary elections that brought the March 14 coalition to power during his first term as premier—strongly denies he is being used by Hizbollah. He has vowed to form a moderate government encompassing all political factions in the country, or, failing that, a government of technocrats.
To that end, the new premier has engaged with several members of the March 14 coalition to explore the possibility of joining his government, despite the fact that he is not obligated to do so constitutionally or politically. According to the Lebanese constitution, Mikati may form his cabinet based on the majority in Parliament, which now means March 8 forces (Hizbollah and its allies). If he did so, the new premier could work with ministers from the same political milieu and save himself much bickering over how things should be run.
Mikati prefers to form a national unity government, but regaining the trust of the March 14 coalition is proving much more difficult than he expected. Members of the Western-supported alliance have refused to join Mikati’s cabinet unless he commits to respecting the Tribunal’s findings, a condition the veteran politician has rejected. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said at the memorial of his father’s assassination on February 14 that the movement will remain in the opposition.
Hizbollah’s main Christian ally, former General Michel Aoun, has been making Mikati’s job difficult as well. Aoun, who has the second largest parliamentary bloc after Hariri, is insisting on choosing the interior minister, which until now has been the prerogative of President Michel Sleiman. If Aoun’s request is met, it could mean a new era for a ministry that has been independent under Interior Minister Ziad Baroud so far, evoking fears that it could play a role in resisting STL findings.
Hizbollah has been adamant that it wants the memorandum of understanding signed with the STL revoked, and has accused the UN tribunal of serving as a U.S. and Israeli tool aimed at weakening its power. In fact, Hariri’s refusal to do so had been the main instigator behind the March 8 group’s decision to quit his government, and observers view the fulfillment of this demand as a clear prerequisite by the party for any upcoming cabinet. Mikati, however, has the support of a large number of Christian representatives in parliament, as well as Amal and the Druze leadership (since Walid Jumblatt switched camps), in addition to that of Hizbollah. Recognizing that Hizbollah would not be able to find a better and more credible Sunni partner than he, Mikati has the leverage to face any excessive Hizbollah demands.
Mikati’s own views on the STL, and any commitments he has made to Hizbollah on the subject, remain unclear. Hizbollah’s Deputy Chief Sheikh Naim Qassem said on February 11 that Mikati's government would be “a political government for clear political choices,” interpreted by some to imply that the new premier has secretly given his word to support Hizbollah’s position on the STL. Mikati, on the other hand, said in an interview on February 1 that his own agenda “is to maintain very good relations with the international community,” adding that “Lebanon has to fulfill its commitments.”
Many Lebanese fear that a Hizbollah-orchestrated government might lead the country to a confrontation with the international community, with the possibility of Lebanon eventually facing UN economic sanctions if it fails to cooperate with the tribunal. For a country already burdened by over $53 billion of debt and with no natural resources to support its economy, the results could be catastrophic.
In addition to dealing with the outcome of the STL’s findings, Mikati’s government will also have other serious challenges at hand; addressing the country’s deep economic woes is of the utmost importance following his predecessor’s failure to do so. The new government is expected to introduce structural reforms in various sectors including telecommunications, electricity and water, education, and health. Passing such reforms requires political stability, however, which is likely to remain elusive in light of the deep political polarization in the country.
Mikati did prove, during his short time in office in 2005, that he was able to steer the country during a highly volatile period that saw, among other things, the withdrawal of the Syrian military after a 30-year presence in Lebanon. But it is also true that during that time, he had the full backing of March 8 and March 14 forces. That is no longer the case.
Majdoline Hatoum is co-founder and partner at Mideastwire.com.