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    Middle East
     Jun 22, 2011

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 accurate.

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 family.

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 capital, Beirut.

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.

When 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.

Mikati's main 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.

Behind 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.

The 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.

Mikati now 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.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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