Friday, August 26, 2011

Divided, Mikati’s cabinet stands

Sometimes a surfeit of optimism looks suspiciously like self-delusion. As the masonry came crashing down around Najib Mikati’s head on Wednesday, it was disquieting to hear the prime minister declare that all had gone well at the cabinet meeting held in Beiteddine.

There is electricity in the air over Gebran Bassil’s $1.2 billion energy bill, with Aounist ministers threatening to boycott government sessions unless, and until, the legislation is approved. In the latest development, Walid Jumblatt announced that his three ministers would reject such approval unless comments on the bill from his National Struggle Front were taken into consideration.

There is more to this than Jumblatt’s and Michel Aoun’s longstanding loathing for each other. Look more closely at the dynamics of the majority now in control of Lebanon and you will see that Aoun also has deep-seated problems with Mikati and Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament. While this will limit his margin of maneuver in the coming months, it will also allow the general to precipitate crises that ultimately strengthen him with his Christian electorate.

During the government-formation process, the prime minister did not hide from his political interlocutors that he had problems with returning Bassil to the Energy Ministry, for reasons of integrity. He was forced to back down when President Bashar al-Assad made it clear last June that he wanted a government in Beirut as soon as possible. But the reality is that Mikati is no keener to see the minister have access to a substantial sum of money than Jumblatt is, even if the Druze leader is an old hand at patronage politics and pie-sharing, so that his salvo against Aoun must be viewed in that light as well.

As for Berri, his resentment has long been building against Aoun, especially after the speaker lost the election in Jezzine in 2009 against candidates backed by the general. There have been rumors circulating among parliamentarians that Berri is looking for openings to strike back at Aoun by helping to undercut the general’s legislative agenda. More profoundly, nothing unites Aoun with the speaker, just as nothing unites Aoun with Jumblatt: The general regards the two as prime beneficiaries of the early post-Taif system that he abominates, principally because French exile denied Aoun the worldly temptations and the political authority that he felt was his by right.

Pity Najib Mikati for being a prisoner of clashing interests impossible to reconcile. When he is not facing Michel Aoun itching for a fight, the prime minister is submitting to the humiliations of Hezbollah. Last week, Time magazine published an interview with one of the suspects indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. It was no surprise to hear him say that the Lebanese authorities knew where he was, but would not arrest him. Mikati asked Hezbollah to deny the interview. This the party did, which in no way lessened the impact of the message: On the tribunal, the government does Hezbollah’s bidding. 

One might almost say the same thing when it comes to domestic security. Marwan Charbel, the interior minister, continues to defend a statement he made on the day of the Antelias bombing, to the effect that the explosion was the outcome of a personal dispute. No one buys that story, and even less so Charbel’s protestations that he was not protecting Hezbollah. That’s because it took almost no time for the verbose minister to contradict himself, when he declared that the Time interview was “dangerous and targets Hezbollah.”

Charbel knew very well that the interview was intentionally set up by Hezbollah. If he could so brazenly misstate the facts about that matter, then we can be assured that he could do the same about the Antelias blast. Charbel may be the common property of Aoun and President Michel Sleiman, but the interests of both are parallel these days, and Aoun is the stronger of the two. As a result, the minister has no trouble emulating Aoun in being a Hezbollah buffer.

March 14 has repeatedly said that it intends to bring Mikati’s government down. There is something rather unsettling in that vow—a sense that a government only has relevance in the context of partisan fighting between the country’s political alignments. You have to wonder where the interests of the Lebanese come in.

Yet Mikati and his turbulent team have done nothing to prove the opposition wrong. Aoun will continue to ride roughshod over his partners in search of greater power to offset his debilitating envy; Hezbollah has missed few opportunities to disgrace the prime minister; Jumblatt has no stomach for Aoun, and is rethinking his rapport with Hezbollah; and Mikati is a bright mask on a squalid tragicomedy—powerless, unable to escape his predicament through resignation, a man tied to a tree receiving a steady pummeling.

This is a government inspiring groans, pretty much the same groans merited by its predecessors. Ignored in the egotistical thrusts and parries of the politicians is the Lebanese public—disgusted with what is going on, yet in large part responsible for giving their leaders so much leeway to act as they please. Mikati’s government is effectively stillborn, despite a useful achievement here and there. Unfortunately, putting it out of its misery may not necessarily bring better.

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