Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lebanon didn't love Mikati but is weaker without him

The resignation last week of Lebanon's prime minister, Najib Mikati, provoked contradictory feelings. It generated anxiety at the prospect that Lebanon may be entering into a prolonged period of vacuum, but it also removed a government that was a source of considerable national discord, paving the way for a new round of national dialogue sessions as Lebanese parties try to prevent a breakdown of civil peace.

The immediate impetus for Mr Mikati to step down was disagreement within the government over two important items: the formation of a commission to oversee parliamentary elections this summer, and the extension of the mandate of Ashraf Rifi, the head of the Internal Security Forces, who is supposed to retire on April 1.

Mr Mikati has often been undermined from within his government, and disagreement over the election commission was a case in point. Hizbollah ministers and those named by the Christian politician Michel Aoun opposed formation of the commission, arguing that this would facilitate elections based on the so-called 1960 law, which they reject. The law is likely to lead to a victory by the March 14 coalition and candidates backed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

This in turn would prevent Hizbollah from implementing its strategy in the event of Bashar Al Assad's ejection from power in Syria. The party seeks a parliamentary majority, with its allies, which would allow it to name a prime minister and a speaker of parliament.

This majority could also elect a new president in 2014, giving Hizbollah control over the top three political posts in the state, facilitating efforts to protect the party's weapons in a post-Assad phase.

That is why Lebanon has been so divided over which election law is to apply next summer. Worse, the absence of an agreement, and Mr Mikati's resignation, make it likely that elections will be postponed. The vote on the election commission was a way for Mr Mikati and the president, Michel Suleiman, to build up momentum for elections to be held on time and on the basis of the 1960 law, if no alternative is found.

The Rifi affair was more personal for Mr Mikati. Like the prime minister, Mr Rifi is a Sunni from the city of Tripoli. He is also close to March 14, and his departure was regarded by the opposition coalition as Hizbollah's way of gaining control of the Internal Security Forces, and therefore effectively all Lebanese security agencies. Mr Mikati insisted that Mr Rifi's term be extended, to avoid a backlash from the largely pro-March 14 Sunni electorate in his city, where Mr Rifi is popular.

Faced with the prospect of humiliating failure on these fronts, Mr Mikati decided to step down. Mr Suleiman must now hold parliamentary consultations to find a new prime minister. The different blocs now must name a favourite and the president tallies the results, asking the individual with the most votes to form a government.

However, a question that must be answered first is what role the next government will play, since this will determine whom the parties name. If the government's primary role is simply to organise elections, then it would be easier for a politically unaligned prime minister to take over for a limited period at the head of a neutral government.

On the other hand, if elections are to be delayed, a political heavyweight is more likely as prime minister, to lead a government that includes all major parties.

Without consensus on the government's role, the formation process will be arduous and could take a long time. It could also lead to a constitutional dilemma. If there are to be no elections, parliament's mandate must be extended. But this can be done only through a request formulated by the government. Yet Mr Mikati's government cannot do so in its current caretaker capacity. So unless a new government can be formed by June, when the first round of elections are scheduled to be held, Lebanon could be without a functioning parliament.

Mr Jumblatt's role will be essential in the coming weeks. The Druze leader left the March 14 coalition in August 2009 and was instrumental in toppling Saad Hariri in 2011. His bloc can hand the parliamentary majority to either March 14 or the March 8 coalition led by Hizbollah.

This has given Mr Jumblatt a vital balancing role in the past two years. Yet he has also been a staunch backer of the uprising against Mr Al Assad's regime, which has pushed him closer to March 14, even if he prefers to remain independent .

Mr Jumblatt will probably follow the lead set by Mr Hariri's bloc, which enjoys Sunni backing. Whomever they name as their preferred prime minister, he will too.

If so, that means that March 14 and Mr Jumblatt will have a majority, and that their candidate will try to form a government. This would be a setback for Hizbollah and Mr Aoun, but they would almost certainly join the government, in order not to be marginalised, if or when Mr Al Assad is forced from office in Syria.

In an effort to paper over Lebanon's domestic divisions, many people are today calling for the resumption of national dialogue. The conflict in Syria has heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon, and the political class is eager to calm the mood. The fall of the government means March 14 is now willing to participate in the dialogue. And all want to avoid the prospect of a new civil war as a consequence of the war in Syria.

And yet no one should expect the rapid formation of a new Lebanese government.

Dialogue is useful but it will not change the fundamental political calculations, often perceived as existential in nature, on all sides. Mr Mikati's government was often a calamity, but what lies ahead may well be further inter-Lebanese discord.

No comments: