Friday, September 23, 2011

Mikati may not be that dead after all

The electricity expansion project remains a substitute battlefield for the factions making up Lebanon’s government. On Wednesday, ministers named by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt agreed to a demand from March 14 that forced their Aounist ministerial colleagues to swallow a bitter legislative pill.

As you might recall, the cabinet recently passed a draft electricity bill that was approved on Thursday by parliament. That draft included certain oversight measures—the introduction of a regulatory authority to supervise the sector, the naming of a new board for the electricity utility, and the adoption of a revised mechanism to consider bids. However, when the energy minister, Gebran Bassil, sent the draft law to parliament this week, those measures had been removed.

March 14 parliamentarians balked, demanding that the government resend the draft passed earlier by the council of ministers. Bassil and his Aounist partners replied that it was not up to the legislature to impose oversight conditions on the executive. However, they backtracked when Mikati, Jumblatt and Berri sided with March 14, accepting that Bassil should resubmit the original draft.

Some time ago I described Mikati as Lebanon’s very own dead man walking. To an extent I still believe that is true. The prime minister’s margin of maneuver on a variety of essential national issues remains very slim, not least Lebanese cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. More ominously, Mikati continues to be a hostage to his community’s reservations about him. He has had to balance every decision because he is caught between Sunni outrage with Hezbollah and the Syrian repression on the one side, and his own alliance with the party and with President Bashar al-Assad on the other.

Economically, the prime minister is equally constrained. He faces a veritable minefield when it comes to macroeconomic reform. One might observe that the Hariri government didn’t greatly progress on that front either. However, Mikati presides over a government of “one color,” or so they say, therefore theoretically better apt to endorse a broad reform plan than an unwieldy government of national unity.

But one has to be fair. The shortcomings of Mikati’s government are not very different from those demonstrated by the government of Saad Hariri. Bearing in mind that no authority could have arrested the four Hezbollah suspects, the prime minister has sought as best he can to work with the STL, against the predictions of many, present company included, that he would toe Hezbollah’s line. Mikati has also refused to sanction retribution against the previous majority through political appointments, rebuffing Aoun’s demand that Ashraf Rifi and Wissam al-Hassan be removed at the Internal Security Forces.

Left largely unmentioned amid the discord within the government over the electricity expansion scheme is the core reason for the dispute: Mikati doubts Bassil’s integrity. A senior politician currently represented in the government told me months ago that Mikati did not want to return Bassil to the Energy Ministry, on the basis of disturbing information he had in his dossiers. Mikati was compelled to do so when the Syrians demanded that a government be formed quickly. A lack of trust alone explains why the compromise over the electricity plan involved breaking down payment into four installments and improving oversight and bidding methods.

The Aounists would complain that Berri and Jumblatt are hardly entitled to take the moral high ground against Bassil. However, Mikati has no reason to be defensive, and has fought hard when he needed to fight. Even on Lebanon’s funding of the STL, the prime minister has shown a readiness to go all the way. He has used Hezbollah’s and Aoun’s helplessness to bring the cabinet down (since Syria would say no) as leverage to push his agenda forward.

The maneuvering within the Mikati government is more interesting than initially forecast by March 14. It was plain early on that Berri and Jumblatt would work with Mikati to clip Aoun’s wings. Interestingly, Hezbollah has responded to this with some restraint. The party avoided leaning too heavily in Aoun’s direction on the electricity plan, and has not followed the general’s lead on appointments. Instead, Hezbollah is employing its power sparingly to protect its “red lines.” The party has embarrassed Mikati when it comes to the STL, but until now has also remained relatively quiet over funding, leading some to believe, perhaps naively, that a compromise will be found. 

The calculation of March 14 has been that Mikati is the weakest link in the government, therefore that he is the man the coalition must target. Maybe. The prime minister is indeed vulnerable to decisive shifts in the Sunni mood, and events in Syria remain unpredictable. However, Mikati has one advantage. Efforts to undermine him risk being interpreted by many Lebanese as just another way of undermining the country’s wellbeing, therefore their own. Mikati also happens to be in Lebanon and his rival, Hariri, abroad, which could be to the advantage of the prime minister in public opinion.

If Mikati is working to reinforce the authority of the state and to contain Lebanon’s growing economic problems, then it would be irresponsible not to support him. That is even more imperative if the situation in Syria deteriorates further. Whether March 14 likes it or not, in a potential struggle between the partisans of a sovereign state and Hezbollah to fill a possible post-Syria Lebanese vacuum, Mikati will be the man representing the state. And if his performance in recent weeks is anything to go by, he will do so with conviction.

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