By Riad Kahwaji
The new Lebanese Prime Minister designate Najib Mikati is fighting an uphill battle to form a new government to replace the outgoing government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri who lost parliamentary majority in a political onslaught led by Syrian and Iranian backed political factions known as March 8 Forces. Mikati, a prominent Muslim Sunni figure from the northern seaside city of Tripoli, has quickly discovered that his task this time around to form a cabinet was not as easy as it was in 2005 when he formed a cabinet within a week benefiting from joint support of both forces – March 8 and their opponents the Western backed March 14 Forces. Over six weeks have passed since he was asked by the Lebanese President to form a new government and yet there are no signs of a cabinet seeing the light shortly. Many analysts are starting to believe that Mikati as well as March 8 Forces and their regional patrons might have miscalculated in toppling Hariri’s cabinet.
Mikati, who broke away from March 14 Forces helping end Hariri’s majority in parliament, has been facing many challenges from the first day he accepted the task of premiership, but the toughest one of all has been gaining the trust of the Lebanese Sunni street. Lebanon is sharply divided along sectarian lines, with Sunni political forces leading a mix of Christian factions locked in a power struggle with Hizbullah-led Shiite parties leading a mix of Christian and Druze factions. The division in Lebanon nowadays is over two main issues: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) formed by the United Nations Security Council under Chapter 7, to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri; and disarming Hizbullah and confining the task of resistance against Israel to the Lebanese regular forces and security agencies. Mikati had tried to contain the rage in the Sunni street over the humiliating way Hariri, a Sunni figure, was unseated. Mikati even endorsed a statement by Dar Al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious establishment in Lebanon, supporting the STL and demanding the disarmament of all Lebanese groups. However, this does not seem to have been enough.
Mikati failed to convince his former allies in March 14 Forces to join his cabinet as he had apparently expected despite holding several meetings with various members of the group. March 14 Forces asked as a precondition to joining Mikati’s cabinet to get enough share to have a veto power (one third plus one), a written statement or declaration by the latter pledging continued support to the STL, and seeking the disarmament of Hizbullah. Observers believe that another factor that drove some prominent Sunni figures away from joining Mikati’s cabinet after showing initial interest was the strong clarification of the Saudi position of the events in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is an influential player on the Lebanese scene and is regarded as patron of the Sunnis of Lebanon. A lot of ambiguity had overshadowed the Lebanese arena at the end of 2010, which led many politicians to believe Riyadh had lost interest in Lebanon and ended its support to Hariri. A recent visit by Hariri to Riyadh where he met with almost all Saudi leaders brought an end to all the speculations. Also Saudi-Syrian relations have reportedly deteriorated as a result of Hariri’s sacking, and Mikati has not received a clear Saudi blessing to his move.
A strong sign of Mikati’s miscalculation was clear in a recent press interview where he lamented March 14 Forces for leaving him alone with President Michel Suleiman to face the other side. Sources close to Mikati said that the Prime Minister designate was having a hard time convincing March 8 Forces of the need to allow him to have a cabinet with a majority of technocrats and moderate politicians. His biggest dilemma was how to prevent the creation of a one-sided government of March 8 Forces because it will be internationally perceived as a “Hizbullah government.” The sources pointed out that Mikati realizes that such a government would bring an end to international aid to the Lebanese economy and military, and could likely bring Lebanon under international sanctions, especially if the cabinet halts cooperation with the STL, as Hizbullah has been demanding. A number of ministers in the current caretaker Hariri government who are close to March 8 Forces, have rejected recent requests by the STL prosecutor, which was seen as a sign on things to come under Mikati.
Another tough message to Mikati that drove away some prominent businessmen-politicians from joining his cabinet was the decision by the U.S. Treasury to blacklist the Lebanese-Canadian Bank for alleged money-laundering charges in favor of Hizbullah. Many analysts perceived this move as a subtle strong warning from the West to Mikati of actions that could be taken against Lebanon and its government members if he went along with forming a one-sided cabinet. Mikati is himself a communications tycoon with a fortune estimated in the billions of dollars, and hence could possibly see his business suffer if he clashed heads on with Washington, Saudi Arabia and the West.
Sources close to Mikati said that he was not in a hurry to form his cabinet, and was ready to wait until conditions are ripe enough for him to establish a cabinet that would satisfy both his wishes as well as those of the international community. They said that as a liberal person, Mikati would not be able to coexist with a cabinet whose majority would be hard-line politicians. Thus, they added, if all efforts fail and his new allies (March 8 Forces) do not cooperate and allow him to have his way, he could just simply quit, which would allow Hariri to regain majority. But this would come at a high cost that could be Mikati’s political career.
Another factor weighing in on the Lebanese scene is the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, where people are rising against dictatorships and demanding reforms, more freedom and democracy. This wave, known as “Arab Spring,” has toppled regimes in Egypt and Tunis, and has reached Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. Leaderships in other Arab countries have embarked on preemptive measures to immune themselves from the uprisings. This movement is serving the March 14 Forces that defines itself as a force of change seeking to end hegemony and tyranny, and are fixing to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the birth of their movement in 2005 that had led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, ending 29 years of control of the country. The March 14 Forces adopted a new motto: Disarming Hizbullah and strengthening the Lebanese regular forces as well as the State. If this movement picks up steam on the Lebanese street, especially amongst Sunnis, Christians and other factions, Mikati’s task would become tougher —in fact, outright impossible.
As for Syria’s and Iran’s allies in Lebanon, especially Hizbullah, ending partnership with March 14 Forces, have subsequently ended the understanding they had with Hariri under which its arms were tolerated by a national unity government and branded as “resistance weapons.” Now, March 14 Forces are openly referring to Hizbullah as a militia seeking to control Lebanon and use its weapons to serve Iran. It is organizing a rally on March 13 under this motto and could possibly do more anti-Hizbullah rallies in the coming weeks, which would generate a lot of supportive reaction in the Lebanese and Arab street during the current “Arab Spring.” Hizbullah is still betting on its ability to do counter rallies and capitalize on its anti-Western stance and possibly do deals with some members of March 14 Forces or moderate politicians to help Mikati establish a moderate cabinet in order to ride the wave. Observers agree this would not be easy, but possible. Times have changed and are changing in the region, and what was impossible yesterday is possible today. Hence again, time would tell, and maybe much sooner than later.
Riad Kahwaji is CEO, INEGMA