Beirut’s new prime minister spurs fresh start

07 March 2011

The appointment of Tripoli-born Sunni businessman Najib Mikati as Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate marks a significant shift in the country’s political weather

The 12 January collapse of the national unity government, led by Saad Hariri, turns the clock back in Beirut. The Hezbollah-aligned 8 March “opposition” movement led by Najib Mikati is now poised to form Lebanon’s next government.

As a Harvard-educated billionaire and founder of a successful international telecoms empire, Mikati was not Hezbollah’s first choice as prime minister. Yet, his credentials are impeccable.

Singularly lacking in political enemies, he casts a much less divisive figure than his predecessor, who had been accused of orchestrating sectarian discord for political gain. Mikati also has the knack of maintaining good relations with most of the power brokers inside and outside the country, an essential prerequisite for a successful Lebanese prime minister.

Besides strong ties to the Syrian leadership, Mikati can also claim the tacit support of Saudi Arabia, which in recent months, has signalled a distinct cooling of its support for Saad Hariri.

This capacity to cross sectarian dividing lines should stand Mikati in good stead as he seeks to build a new cabinet. His preference is to pick a team of technocrats, ministers of the ilk of the highly respected Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud. Yet, such hopes may be dashed in the highly charged sectarian atmosphere of Beirut.

Political ties

“Mikati is now working on a very tight wire, in the sense that he hopes to create a ‘government of the middle’ comprising technocrats. But we know that in Lebanon, there is nothing of the middle,” says Joe Sarrouh, adviser to the chairman of Lebanon’s Fransabank.

He will struggle to draw in members of the 14 March camp, who have made their participation contingent on a clear position over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

Hariri made plain his opposition to Mikati’s government at the sixth memorial of his father’s assassination on 14 February, highlighting three red lines: support for the constitution, the STL and a commitment “to protect public and private life in Lebanon from the predominance of weapons”, coded reference to Hezbollah’s status as the only armed faction in Lebanon.

Besides strong ties to the Syrian leadership, Mikati can also claim the tacit support of Saudi Arabia

Mikati’s stance towards the tribunal will, therefore, dictate whether the new government will be of “one colour” - comprising mainly the backers of the 8 March movement - or a cross-factional coalition. Given the nature of his main support base, it is hard to envisage Mikati cooperating with the tribunal.

“Mikati has claimed that he is not bound by any group over the tribunal, but realistically, there is no way that the opposition would have nominated him, had he not agreed to their demands on this issue,” says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Beirut-based politcal analyst.

This does not necessarily place Mikati in a Hezbollah straitjacket. “Someone as wily a politician as Mikati would not have assumed the position if he had not felt able to juggle his personal political agenda with that of Hezbollah’s and the opposition,” says Saad-Ghorayeb.

Mikati’s decision to allow himself to be nominated by the 8 March camp is likely to have been founded on the recognition that, on certain issues, notably the STL and the protection of Hezbollah’s ability to bear arms, he would have to give way.

The challenge will be to neither offend the Hariri camp and the international community, nor prove controversial with Hezbollah.

Economic agenda

If he can force through a classic Lebanese-style fudge over the STL, he should at least have the political capital to pursue his economic agenda with renewed vigour.

The trade-off for Mikati’s support for Hezbollah may be the Shia movement’s acquiescence in economic reforms that jar with their efforts and promote an overt social justice agenda. Recent statements from the PM-designate suggest that, as a successful business leader, he intends to focus on the economy above all else.

His main thrust will be to reactivate economic reforms that have been paralysed by the political wrangling since 2008, when Hezbollah’s show of force brought to an end Hariri’s 14 March government, and led to its replacement with a looser national unity coalition.

“Mikati’s work is cut out for him but the economic challenges are very clear. Every time the media asks him about the tribunal, he says ‘you are forgetting the economic issues at hand’. He wants to focus on those,” says Nassib Ghobril, head of research at Byblos Bank.

In the national unity government, an atmosphere of confrontation between the rival camps thwarted any real economic initiatives. The composition of the new cabinet is, therefore, keenly awaited. Even if it is of one-colour, observers believe it may prove more effective than a rainbow coalition, despite all the political misgivings about the 8 March camp’s political agenda.

Governing Lebanon has never been easy, yet Lebanese, of all persuasions, have reason to hope that the emollient new PM can make a clean break from years of confrontation and stagnation, and focus on the boring necessities: clipping the deficit, advancing reform of state entities, and maintaining growth and stability.


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