The honeymoon between incoming Lebanese Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati and the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance has either come to an end or has begun its long march into history. When he was appointed Prime Minister last January, Mikati was believed to have secured the strong backing of Hezbollah. In exchange for his nomination, the new premier was believed to have promised to give strategic cabinet posts to Hezbollah’s allies in the March 8 Alliance and hammer out a cabinet policy statement that pledged to ‘protect and embrace’ the arms of Hezbollah.
It was also believed that he would take immediate action on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), distancing his country politically, legally, and financially from the UN court before it blames members of Hezbollah in the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. To date, nearly three months later, none of that has happened, explaining why Hezbollah is becoming impatient — to say the least — with the new prime minister.
Last Tuesday, Mikati met with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. The March 8 Alliance, Nasrallah reminded him, would not join a cabinet that does not include any of its Sunni members. Although Mikati had earmarked five seats for Sunni Muslims in the new government, he was clearly avoiding naming any members of March 8 in order to avoid stirring further tension with his predecessor, Sa’ad Hariri.
Hezbollah had explicitly asked him to offer a ministry to Faisal Karami, the son of ex-Prime Minister Omar Karami, but Mikati had refused, claiming that if Karami became minister, three of the five seats would be taken by natives of Tripoli (the Prime Minister himself, incoming Finance Minister Mohammad Al Safadi, and Karami). The notables of Beirut, he noted, would never accept such an imbalance in political representation.
Nasrallah also said that he wanted Mikati to satisfy all the demands of Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun, vis-à-vis cabinet seats that included the Ministry of Interior, which Aoun wants for his son-in-law, Jibran Bassil. Aoun’s demand, no less than 12 out of 15 Christian ministers in a 30-man cabinet, was a red-line that Mikati will not accept. Aoun has been arguing that since he controls the largest Christian bloc in Parliament he is entitled to a larger share of seats than Hariri’s Christian allies in March 14.
Rather than try and moderate Aoun’s demands, Hezbollah has rallied rank-and-file behind him, refusing to endorse anything that is not 100 per cent accepted by Aoun. Mikati insists that Aoun should get no more than 9 ministers in the new government whereas President Michel Sulaiman should get to name the ministers of defence and interior. Under no circumstances would Aoun or his allies accept naming current Interior Minister Ziad Baroud for a new tenure — despite the fact that he has the full backing of the Lebanese president.
Additionally, Mikati wants a cabinet of 24 ministers, rather than 30. A small cabinet would enable him to deliver as prime minister, where he would chose ministers according to merit, rather than political or sectarian affiliations. Nasrallah, however, is pushing for a government of 30 ministers in order to accommodate Aoun’s demands. Mikati also told Nasrallah bluntly that he was ‘not convinced’ of the need to give Aoun more representation than he deserves in the new government. Shortly after the Mikati-Nasrallah meeting, the prime minister was visited by a Hezbollah envoy who asked him to form a cabinet within seven to 10 days or make way for somebody who could deliver.
For its part, Hezbollah has asked nothing for itself in the new government, urging Mikati to accommodate instead the demands of its allies, Aoun and Nabih Berri. Mikati, however, an internationally acclaimed businessman, is reluctant to form a cabinet that colours him pro-Hezbollah. According to sources close to Hezbollah, when meeting with US Ambassador to Beirut Maura Connelly, Mikati told her: “Look at me! Do I look like a stooge for Aoun or Hezbollah?” Nasrallah believes that time is running out on the STL, lamenting the fact that they had not relied on Omar Karami to form a cabinet, given that he would have immediately made the desired U-turn on the STL.
Mikati, they now believe, was more anti-Hariri than he was pro-Hezbollah whereas Karami was firmly supporting of Hezbollah and would do what it takes to make them happy — regardless of how this was viewed by the international community. The enthusiasm that Mikati had to please Hezbollah back in January seems to have fizzled out.
One reason might be the regional upheaval that swept the Arab world since January, which explains why Mikati has been delaying formation — possibly to see how things develop in Syria, which was rocked by internal disturbances. For its part, Hariri’s team doesn’t think that Mikati will ever form a cabinet. They think that Mikati will either decline formation, or make a unilateral announcement that would surely be drowned in Parliament, by both March 8 and March 14. That way he would keep his position independent yet relieve himself of the burden of cabinet formation, taking into account the fact that the situation has changed tremendously in the region since Hariri’s cabinet was brought down in January 2011.
This article appeared in Gulf News on April 5, 2011.