Lebanon News

Mikati’s bitter options

Three months have passed since Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati was tasked by the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition with forming a Cabinet, but tangible signs are yet to materialize over a breakthrough in the efforts to form a government.

When the Saudi-Syrian compromise collapsed last January, Hezbollah and its allies rushed to topple Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government.

The decision to oust Hariri came after he refused to comply with Hezbollah’s conditions for remaining in office – the party was particularly determined to end Beirut’s cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was a pillar of the Saudi-Syrian agreement.

Once the new parliamentary majority designated Mikati, it expected the head of the new government to carry out what Hariri had refused to endorse, because expecting anything less from the prime minister-designate would defeat the purpose of his nomination and the ousting of Hariri.

Thus, one should examine the government formation process and its related complications, as going beyond the reportedly disputed distribution of portfolios, as it extends to the overall perception of the new government in the regional contest that pits Iran and its regional ally Damascus against the U.S. and the Saudi-led GCC coalition.

While March 8 pro-Syrian figures argue that Damascus would benefit from an allied government in Beirut and consequently is seeking its prompt formation, March 14 officials insist that Syria might intentionally be delaying the process to use it as leverage in its negotiations with the West.

But irrespective of Damascus’ exact position vis-à-vis the formation of a government, Mikati seems to be endorsing a wait-and-see approach as the direction of events in Syria is yet to unfold.

The mounting unrest over the last few days and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s decision to crush the opposition seems to further complicate Mikati’s task.

When Hariri refused to succumb to Hezbollah’s demand to scrap his government’s cooperation with the international community, symbolized by working with the U.N.-backed tribunal, he was fully aware of the negative repercussions that Lebanon and he might suffer as the result of confronting the international community.

Mikati, like Hariri, seems to have reached the same conclusion amid warnings by U.S. officials against the formation of a “Hezbollah-oriented” government, which have overlapped with an intensification of the crackdown on Hezbollah’s financial operatives.

The crackdown led to the recent blacklisting of the Lebanese-Canadian Bank by the U.S. Treasury Department based on allegations of money laundering tied to Hezbollah, which the U.S. lists as a Terrorist Foreign Organization, making it a criminal act for anyone to provide material assistance to the party.

Although the decision resulted from several years of investigations, the timing of the move can be easily read as a clear warning against succumbing to Hezbollah’s growing dominance, raising fears over the stability of Lebanon’s banking sector.

Thus, Mikati is less likely to withstand international and domestic pressure at a time when Assad’s regime faces a popular uprising, in contrast to when Damascus, from a dominant position, threw its full weight behind Hezbollah’s demands and its decision to oust Hariri.

In other words, it is as costly for Mikati to form what U.S. officials has recently dubbed as a “Hezbollah-dominated” Cabinet as it was too costly for Hariri to bear the consequences of the Syrian-Saudi compromise sought by Hezbollah.

Accordingly, the obvious question arises: Will Mikati step down, or will regional developments change course, and let him reassert his position as head of the new government?

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 28, 2011, on page 2.

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