Lebanese premier yet to smell
victory By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The cabinet of Lebanese Prime
Minister Najib Mikati, formed last week after 141
days of consultations, has been frowned upon by
the international community and labeled a
"Hezbollah government". Scratching beneath the
surface, this accusation is not particularly
To start with, Hezbollah only
has two ministers in the Mikati government,
although its ally General Michel Aoun does have
the lion's share of strategic seats. Additionally,
the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance holds a
majority in the cabinet, but not a
two-thirds-plus-one majority needed to control
veto power. Out of 30 ministers, only 13 belong to
Hezbollah and its allies, the Amal Movement of
speaker Nabih Berri, and the Free Patriotic
Movement (FPM) of Aoun.
Three ministers belonging to Druze leader
Walid Jumblatt are the jewel of the crown of the
Mikati cabinet - their vote on any issue tips the
balance either in favor of March 8 or the "other
camp" that includes the prime minister's team and
close allies of President Michel Suleiman.
Although seemingly tailor-made to fit Hezbollah's
demands, the cabinet actually serves the interests
of one man - and one man only - Mikati.
Mikati's native Tripoli, a historical
stronghold for Sunnis, has never been more
strongly represented in any cabinet. No Sunni
heavyweight from the city, neither Omar Karami nor
his father, Abdul Hamid Karami, managed to come up
with four ministers for Tripoli - two of them who
are actually members of the powerful Karami
By doing so, Mikati is firmly
establishing himself as the prime leader of
Tripoli; a standing that will certainly come
useful in the parliamentary elections of 2013.
During the last elections he received 87% of the
Sunni vote in Tripoli. On a broader level, Mikati
is marketing himself as the Sunni leader of
Lebanon, challenging the powerful Hariri family,
which remains firmly rooted in Sidon and the
By doing so, he will try
to consolidate his relationship with countries
like Saudi Arabia, which is already strong,
standing as a possible substitute to Saad
al-Hariri - while simultaneously courting
Hezbollah's backers in Iran.
nominated for the premiership in January, Mikati
was believed to have obtained strong Hezbollah
backing, based on a deal hammered out with the
March 8 Alliance. They would name him prime
minister and he would immediately respond by
terminating Lebanon's adherence to the Special
Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that was charged with
investigating the murder of Saad al-Hariri's
father, Rafik al-Hariri, who was prime minister at
the time of is death in 2005.
The STL was
believed to have been on the verge of issuing
indictments in the Hariri affair that blamed
Hezbollah for the murder. Mikati reportedly
promised to distance his country, politically,
financially and legally, from the STL. He was also
expected to come out with a cabinet policy
statement that pledged to "embrace and protect"
the arms of Hezbollah. Saad al-Hariri had secured
the premiership in 2009 only after promising to
make a similar pledge to Hezbollah.
Finally, Mikati was expected to answer to
all of the needs of March 8; vis-a-vis naming
cabinet ministers from Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun's
Free Patriotic Movement. The last part of that
deal was firmly implemented this June, when Mikati
gave Aoun strategic jobs like the ministries of
Justice, Defense, Energy and Labor. Additionally,
he appointed Marwan Charbel, a retired officer, as
minister of the interior only after obtaining the
approval of Aoun - although in theory that job
belonged to an appointee of the president.
Mikati has done nothing to date, however,
vis-a-vis the STL - which is very worrying for
Hezbollah. Additionally, he has stressed that he
has no intention of ruining his relationship with
the West for the sake of Hezbollah and repeatedly
denied having struck a behind-the-scene deal with
Hezbollah in January.
problem is that the West is alarmed by his
relationship with March 8, with certain United
States lawmakers already lobbying to cut off
Washington's aid to Beirut, and asking to boycott
the Mikati government.
The Barack Obama
administration has said that it will judge Mikati
by the actions of his government rather than by
the political affiliation of its members. If
Mikati does walk that extra mile to please
Hezbollah with a cabinet policy statement to their
liking, or takes a blow against the STL, he runs a
high risk of alienating the West and entering into
open confrontation with Hariri's March 14
coalition. He also runs the risk of damaging his
relationship with Saudi Arabia.
closed doors, Hezbollah members say they are not
too satisfied with Mikati. Many lament choosing
him above a trusted ally like former prime
minister Omar Karami, who would have delivered on
all of March 8's demands from day one.
difference between Mikati and Karami, they claim,
is that Mikati is more anti-Hariri than he is
pro-Hezbollah, whereas Karami is pro-Hezbollah to
the bone. Mikati's main objective is challenging
Hariri and replacing him as the ultimate Sunni
leader of Lebanon. He is using Hezbollah to
achieve just that.
Karami does not have
that obsession, and is already confident of his
historical standing within the Sunni community
given that he, his slain brother and his father
were all former prime ministers. However,
precisely because of his firm alliance with
Hezbollah, Karami would have been more difficult
than Mikati for Hezbollah to sell to the world.
Given all of the above, Mikati will now
embark on the difficult task of obtaining
parliamentary approval for his cabinet. Under the
constitution this needs to be done within the next
30 days. Simply put, if Hezbollah's demands are
not met, their majority alliance in the chamber
will say no to the prime minister and bring
Lebanon back to square one.
If he answers
their demands, Mikati could become isolated in the
international community, yet nevertheless enjoy
the backing of Syria and Iran.
has to balance out his options, seeing which of
the two camps will give him the most power within
the complex web of Lebanese and Middle East
politics, and ensure that he rules as a powerful -
and sustainable - prime minister, and Sunni leader
for Lebanon. The determining factor for Mikati -
unlike Karami - will not be Hezbollah or its arms,
but his eye on his legacy.
Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and
editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.
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