BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati will resume his work from the Grand Serail Tuesday, three days after he said he had suspended his decision to resign and that he would work from his home in protest at the assassination of top security official Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan.
Mikati has come under mounting pressure from the opposition March 14 parties to resign since Hasan’s killing in a car bomb in Beirut last week. The March 14 parties have blamed Mikati and Syrian President Bashar Assad for Hasan’s assassination.
Mikati is expected to meet at the Grand Serail with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who is visiting Lebanon on the second leg of a five-day tour of the Middle East for talks on developments in the region, particularly the 19-month-old conflict in Syria and its repercussions on the situation in Lebanon. Ashton visited Jordan Monday.
Ashton will reiterate the EU’s position announced by the EU ambassador to Lebanon, Angelina Eichhorst, when she met Mikati two days ago which calls for the Lebanese government not to resign to avoid plunging the country into a power vacuum, sources at the Grand Serail said.
Foreign officials who have contacted Mikati since Hasan’s assassination have expressed similar stances, the sources said.
Referring to sectarian clashes in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli that followed Hasan’s funeral in downtown Beirut Sunday, ministerial sources told The Daily Star that the decision to maintain security in the country and prevent the blocking of roads and gunfire has been taken at the highest levels.
Referring to March 14 protests in downtown Beirut to press for the government’s resignation, the sources said that any civilized protests or a peaceful sit-in would be tolerated provided that the action would not undermine the country’s security and stability.
Meanwhile, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun warned of a political vacuum in the country if the government resigned under March 14 pressure.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Star, Aoun said the resignation of some ministers in the Cabinet was a possibility in light of the developments following Hasan’s assassination.
“It would be very hard for the Cabinet to resign now. The reason being the difficulties in forming Cabinets and that the country cannot bear a [political] void,” Aoun said. “What happened [Hasan’s assassination] constitutes a security setback but if there was a vacuum, maybe the country will be in chaos without officials and the average of forming government, unfortunately, has been six months and up.”
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel met with senior police officers at the Grand Serail Monday to thrash out a plan to maintain security around the government seat in downtown Beirut and prevent a recurrence of Sunday’s attempts by March 14 protesters to storm the Grand Serail.
During a meeting with President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace, Mikati was briefed by the president on the contacts he had with Lebanese leaders as well as the attitudes of the ambassadors of major powers to deal with the crisis brought on by Hasan’s killing, government sources said.
The sources added that Mikati resuming his activity at the Grand Serail was no longer a priority. Mikati has told political leaders who contacted him that he was ready to discuss all options. “If they want a new government, I am ready. If they don’t want a government, I have no problem either,” the sources quoted Mikati as saying.
Political sources said that the stance of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt since Hasan’s killing was that there was no alternative to Mikati as head of the current government or any other national unity or salvation Cabinet.
Furthermore, the attitudes of Western capitals which rejected the government’s resignation have enhanced the impression felt by people who met Mikati Monday that he was more satisfied and reassured than the first days of the crisis, the sources said.
As such, the sources said that the March 14 parties will have to review their assessment of the Western and local political climate which indicates that Mikati’s staying as the head of the government was inevitable for the time being.
Meanwhile, Western countries and the United Nations expressed solidarity with Lebanon as it struggles to overcome the crisis over Hasan’s assassination.
“The meeting with President Michel Sleiman was held at our request to underline our solidarity with Lebanon at this difficult time,” U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly told reporters following an emergency meeting with Sleiman at Baabda Palace.
The meeting was attended by ambassadors of five major powers – the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia, which are permanent members in the U.N. Security Council.
Plumbly urged all Lebanese parties to reach a deal that would preserve national unity: “The United Nations calls on all Lebanese sides to move forward on a peaceful political path to preserve stability and security in their country.”
He added that the Cabinet should continue to preserve stability and security in Lebanon.
“The U.N., and the five countries’ representatives that attended the meeting expressed their determination to support the government of Lebanon to put an end once and for all to impunity in Lebanon,” Plumbly said.
Condemning the “terrorist attack” that killed Hasan, his driver and a woman in Ashrafieh, Plumbly said the U.N. stressed the need to refer those involved in the bombing to the judiciary.
“The U.N. reiterates once again its condemnation of any attempt that aims at destabilizing Lebanon through political assassinations,” Plumbly said in Arabic while surrounded by the five ambassadors. “The permanent members at the United Nations call upon all the parties in Lebanon to preserve stability.”
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly discussed developments in Lebanon during a meeting with Speaker Nabih Berri.
Meanwhile, Jumblatt signaled his support for the Mikati government in the face of strong March 14 calls for its resignation following Hasan’s assassination. He also said that the PSP was ready to participate in the formation of a new salvation government, a long-standing demand by the opposition March 14 coalition.
Responding to March 14 leaders who linked attending National Dialogue sessions to the government’s resignation first, Jumblatt said in his weekly article to be published in the PSP’s weekly Al-Anbaa newspaper Tuesday: “Linking all future stances to the government’s resignation first would expose the country to instability and falling again into the trap wanted by the Syrian regime, which is to plunge Lebanon into vacuum.
“The PSP, while affirming its full commitment to civil peace as a red line that should not be crossed, renews its readiness to participate in the formation of a new government to serve as a national partnership government to salvage the country from the current situation provided that there was a collective consensus at the local and regional levels.”
Jumblatt defended Mikati against harsh March 14 campaigns.
“The government and its head must not be held responsible more than they can endure,” he said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned in a newspaper interview that Hasan’s assassination would lead to “negative reactions and repercussions not only on Lebanon, but also on all states in the region, including Turkey.”