DAMASCUS - Incoming Lebanese Prime Minister Najib al-Mikati is probably
thrilled by the more than two weeks of demonstrations in Egypt that saw the
ouster of long-serving president Hosni Mubarak.
They have given him the chance to sit back and quietly consult with different
politicians with the aim of creating a new government by February 18. There are
no television networks banging on his door, no journalists hiding in the bushes
around his home in Beirut, and no Western diplomats breathing down his neck
make sure Hezbollah doesn't become too powerful in the next cabinet.
Mikati, after all, was brought to power in January with the direct blessing of
the once called "Hezbollah-backed opposition". That opposition, now proudly
calling itself "the Hezbollah-led majority", had collectively withdrawn its 11
ministers from the pro-Western government of his predecessor, Saad al-Hariri.
The prime reason was Hariri's refusal to abide by the Syrian-Saudi Initiative,
which called on him to distance Lebanon from the Special Tribunal on Lebanon
(STL), charged with investigating the 2005 murder of his father, ex-prime
minister Rafik al-Hariri. Mikati's position on the STL will probably make or
break his upcoming premiership, given that today, it is the only thing that
matters in the complex world of Beirut politics.
That court, as far as the Syrians, the Saudis, Hezbollah and the Iranians were
concerned, was a miserable excuse for international justice, abused by various
Lebanese politicians who lied under oath during its investigations. The fact
that it took these "false witnesses" seriously, using them to reach legal
conclusions, refused to interrogate any Israeli official in the Hariri murder,
and has had large chunks of its findings "leaked" to the international press
leaves little room for doubt that the court is not to be trusted, says
What makes things worse is that the STL is expected to soon issue indictments
blaming senior members of Hezbollah in the Hariri affair after having failed to
blame it on the Syrians since 2005. If Mikati wants full-fledge Hezbollah
support, he has been told that he needs to turn his back on the STL and
distance his country from it, politically, legally and financially.
Among other things, Hezbollah wants him to withdraw the four Lebanese judges
from the STL and cancel the 49% Lebanese funding of the court's treasury, which
accounts to roughly US$32 million. To date, the new prime minister has refused
to commit, in writing, to such a condition but has pledged to hammer out a
cabinet policy statement that pledges to "protect and embrace" the arms of
Mikati, however, recently commented, "My nomination [to the premiership] by
Hezbollah doesn't make me committed to any political stance other than
protecting the resistance." Hariri, still sulking at being ejected with little
ceremony or respect in January, is trying to bargain with Mikati: if you refuse
to commit on the STL, we will join your upcoming government. As things look
today, however, Mikati is uninterested in Hariri's offer.
To make life easier for Mikati, Hezbollah has announced that it wants no seats
in the cabinet, countering all Western accusations that it had "hijacked" the
upcoming government. The March 14 Alliance of Hariri has also announced that it
will not be joining the new cabinet - for reasons very different from those of
Its members cannot digest the reality that their leader is no longer prime
minister and refuse to work with anybody but him. When he was first confirmed
last January, March 14 stalwarts took to the streets in Mikati's native
Tripoli, rioting, destroying public property, and burning posters of the new
prime minister. If any member of March 14 wants to join the new Mikati
government, he/she would be doing so in their private capacities and not as
members of the Hariri alliance.
For his part, Mikati is looking at a 24- or 30-member government, dividing
seats along confessional lines, as customarily done in Lebanon. It will be
based along the following lines: five seats for the Sunnis, five for the
Shi'ites, five for the Maronites, three for Catholics, two for Greek Orthodox,
two for the Druze and two for the Armenians.
The Amal movement, staunch Hezbollah allies, will be getting the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and Energy while the ex-minister and Maronite chief Suleiman
Franjiyeh might be getting the Ministry of Health. The Sunnis will get the
Ministry of Finance, which will certainly go to Mohammad al-Safadi, the Tripoli
member of parliament and businessman who voted for Mikati during cabinet
formation consultations last January.
Tammam Salam, scion of a leading Beiruti Sunni political family, will get
either the Ministry of Education or Higher Education. He is the son of six-time
prime minister Saeb Salam, one of the founders of Lebanese independence who
headed the Sunni community before Rafik al-Hariri surfaced in the early 1990s.
Another prominent Sunni earmarked for cabinet post is Laila al-Solh, a former
minister and daughter of Riad al-Solh, another co-founder of the Lebanese
Republic and heavyweight name in the pre-Hariri Sunni community of Lebanon.
Solh's sister is married to Saudi King Abdullah's brother Prince Talal and is
the mother of billionaire Saudi businessman, Alwaleed Bin Talal.
Mikati's choice of both Solh and Salam is a clear indicator that he is trying
to reverse the trend in the Sunni community, recreating Sunni notables that are
strongly present in Lebanon's history who faded away with rise of the Hariri
empire since the 1990s. With Salam and Sulh onboard, who needs Hariri?
The sticking point in the upcoming formation lies with Hezbollah's ally,
General Michel Aoun, who is demanding no less than 10 seats in the cabinet. He
is asking for all Christian seats once held by Hariri's Future Movement and its
two allies, the Lebanese Forces of Samir Gagea and Phalange Party of
ex-president Amin Gemayel.
The Phalange is still toying with the idea of joining the Mikati cabinet,
regardless of March 14's position, arguing that no cabinet should be formed
without representation of a party that for long has mirrored the Christian
identity of Lebanon. President Gemayel has his eyes set on the Ministry of
Education for the Phalange, although his son Sami, a member of parliament
firmly allied with Hariri, prefers boycotting the Mikati government.
Aoun, however, is arguing that the pro-Western Phalange Party is now history
and should be given nothing in the new government, because they no longer
represent the Maronite Christian community. Among other things, Aoun is
demanding the powerful portfolios of Justice, Interior and Telecommunications,
three positions that are backed by Hezbollah.
He wants to make his ally Shakib Qartabawi, the ex-president of the Bar
Association, minister of justice, promising that once in office he would take
all necessary measures against the STL.
Qartabawi, a respected legal mind and a non-sectarian politician, has already
signaled that if he becomes minister he would immediately recall Lebanese
judges from the STL. Telecommunications, a vital job because under it falls
jurisdiction over Hezbollah's telephone network, needs to be given to a trusted
Hezbollah ally, he argues.
Aoun is also asking that his son-in-law Gibran Bassil be made minister of
interior, a request that has flatly been rejected by President Michel Suleiman,
who wants to name independent Ministers of Justice and Defense. Not only does
Aoun refuse such a condition but is also asking that Suleiman gets to name
three, rather than five ministers, with only one of them being to a
"sovereignty post". Talks are still underway between Mikati and Aoun, who
recently wrapped up a brief visit to Syria, aimed at accommodating all of the
retired general's political demands.
Mikati hopes to finalize all these pending issues within the next week, and
meanwhile, the people of Lebanon are holding their breath - and looking
elsewhere - towards the popular uprising in Cairo. Mubarak, after all, is a
staunch supporter of Saad al-Hariri and his departure could damage Hariri's
The Lebanese realize that the one thing in common between Hariri, Mubarak,
Tunisia's ex-President Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali and Jordan's recently sacked
prime minister Samir al-Rifaii, is that they were all pro-American politicians
who came to power and were maintained at their posts, thanks to strong US
backing over the years.
Hariri has also lost many traditional allies in the region, like Saudi King
Abdullah, who is furious with him for turning his back on the Syrian-Saudi
Initiative, under urging of US officials during a recent visit by the ex-prime
minister to New York and Washington.
Deprived of Saudi and Egyptian support, and with a US administration that is
quickly recalculating due to Mubarak's expected collapse, Hariri is in for a
difficult 2011, bracing himself to become "leader of the Lebanese opposition".
Monday marks the sixth anniversary of his father's 2005 murder. Usually on
February 14, Hariri drums up large demonstrations in downtown Beirut,
commemorating the occasion. This time, doubting that he can rally large numbers
- which anyhow would look mediocre compared to the masses assembled in Tahrir
Square in Cairo - Hariri has already decided to change venue.
Instead of the public space in downtown Beirut, Hariri has announced that he
will be holding the commemoration in Biel, an exhibition and leisure center in
the Lebanese capital. That in itself speaks volumes about Hariri's diminishing
popularity base in Beirut.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, political analyst and
Editor-in-Chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.
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