Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is Najib Mikati preparing a comeback?

 Having endured the ministers named by Michel Aoun for two years, Prime Minister Najib Mikati deserves our admiration. And yet his decision last week to resign has set Lebanon on a dangerous path, despite calls for a resumption of the dialogue sessions.

Particularly worrisome is that the country has a tight timetable to name a government. If elections are postponed, then parliament’s term will have to be extended. For this to occur, any constitutional amendment must go through the government, which at present functions only in a caretaker capacity. That means that if there is no government by June when elections are scheduled to begin, Lebanon could find itself without a government and parliament.

Yet it’s also true that constitutional constraints have never prevented political compromises from being reached. So was Mikati’s resignation a scheme to return to power in a stronger incarnation? The prime minister assumed that he would be politically finished in his community if he didn’t fight to keep at his post the director-general of the Internal Security Forces, Ashraf Rifi, like him a Sunni from Tripoli, and a popular one at that. The principal target of Mikati’s exasperation was Aoun, whose ministers have been consistent thorns in Mikati’s side during his premiership.

Lebanese leaders are now examining the advantages in resuming the National Dialogue sessions. Their stated ambition is to discuss an election law and the formation of a new government. But even though dialogue must resume, the fact is that the focus on a new government leaves considerably less room to negotiate a new election law.

Nor is there any agreement over the role the next government must play. If the priority is elections, then the government would serve in an interim capacity to organize elections until a new team takes over once the voting ends. On the other hand if a compromise over elections is viewed as unlikely, then expect a stronger government of national unity, which would serve for a longer period of time and whose primary duty would be to address domestic discord until agreement is reached over an election law acceptable to all.

In an interview with this newspaper, Mikati said he would only agree to head the latter type of government. He explained this by saying “I have political ambitions, I am not going to lie to you.” In other words, Mikati is implicitly recognizing that it may be best to hold off on elections for now, while concentrating on establishing a government of national unity under his leadership, or as he put it in his resignation statement, a government of national salvation.

Mikati appears to be correctly reading the political landscape. There are simply not that many other Sunnis who can lead a government today. But it’s also true that whomever the Future bloc endorses, will probably be tasked with forming a government. The reason is simple: March 14 will go along with the choice, and Walid Jumblatt, who can swing the majority to March 14 will not seek a new rift with Saad Hariri and a majority of Sunnis by choosing someone else.

Among the few names circulating is that of Adnan Kassar. He was economy minister in Omar Karami’s government of 2004 and a minister without portfolio in Saad Hariri’s government of 2009. He is best know as the president of Fransabank.

Kassar may be the right man to lead a temporary government that would organize elections, but he would not work as prime minister of a more substantial national unity government if elections are delayed. Kassar is perceived as a technocrat, not someone with the political clout allowing him to wrestle with the likes of Aoun and Hezbollah and generate confidence in political stability. Nor would the Sunnis, eager for a stronger leader, consider him the best choice.

In the absence of Saad Hariri, who says that his personal security prevents him from returning to Lebanon, Future may opt for someone from its ranks, such as Bahia Hariri or Fouad Siniora. Hariri, given her political path, would be an interesting choice, and it is one that might calm Sunni-Shiite tensions in Sidon, a front line in contact between the two communities. Siniora, on the other hand, would be regarded by Hezbollah as a confrontation candidate, since the party remembers with great bitterness its relationship with him when he was prime minister during the 2006 war and afterward.

As for Mohammad Safadi, the finance minister, it is difficult to envisage that March 14 or Jumblatt would select him. That leaves few other viable options among the Sunnis. Mikati, understanding this, perhaps planned his resignation as a step on the way to forming a more harmonious government he would lead. Given his willingness to confront Hezbollah and Aoun, he could be more palatable to March 14, which this time might well join a national unity government.

One scenario is currently making the rounds. A petition signed by 69 parliamentarians has been presented to the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, to hold a parliamentary session to vote on raising the retirement age of security chiefs. This would resolve the Rifi problem, and allow the extension of the mandate of the Army commander, Jean Kahwagi, who is also set to retire soon. In exchange, the 1960 law would be formally scrapped and a consensus would emerge around Mikati to lead a new government, this time with March 14 backing.

There is something here for everybody. But can this arrangement work? If it does, Mikati’s gamble would have been a success, a convenient way to break free from the Aounist albatross around his neck. But we can kiss goodbye to elections for the time being. All those demanding that they take place on time should read the signs. There will probably be no voting in Lebanon this coming June.

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