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Edition 19 Volume 9 - June 30, 2011

The Mikati government in Lebanon: regional ramifications

Syria-Hizballah red lines  - Joseph Bahout
Damascus' message was "Lebanon is, despite all this, still ours".

Najib Mikati's mission impossible  - Karim Emile Bitar
The Syrian revolution is but one of the tasks the Mikati government will have to confront.

Lebanon's new zero-sum government  - Franklin Lamb
Forces are aligned to return to the political conflict of recent years.

A transition period  - Eyal Zisser
The real story is unfolding in Damascus and not in Beirut.

Syria-Hizballah red lines
 Joseph Bahout

When the Hariri government in Lebanon fell at the end of last year, and although a new prime minister was quite quickly appointed by the majority that coalesced around the March 8 forces, almost all analysts speculated that Lebanon was entering a long period of political vacuum and that the prime minister-designate would take a long time to form his government. The speculation then was that Syria and Hizballah, the two main power brokers behind the maneuver, just wanted to get rid of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri's majority in order to deal from a more comfortable position with the anticipated Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictment regarding the assassination of Hariri's father, Rafik, in 2005.

A lot of surprises followed, however, and provided additional explanations for the subsequent limbo period of five months during which prime minister-designate Najib Mikati seemed either unable or unwilling to form a cabinet. The "Arab spring" revolutions erupted, first not only ignoring Syria but ironically seeming to play to its advantage, then ultimately reaching its soil and spreading from the remote province of Deraa to the entire country. Syria's initial unwillingness to shape the political landscape of its Lebanese backyard by pushing for formation of a cabinet morphed into an inability--a paralysis induced by the stunning way in which the Syrian uprising confronted the Damascus leadership.

This is why, when all of a sudden the March 8 forces finally ended their bickering around the quotas to share, the new team was announced two days after Walid Jumblatt's visit to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the day after the decisive events in Jisr al-Shughur in northwest Syria, and on the day of the Turkish elections. True, there is a classic Lebanese reflex that reads all local details through the prism of regional affairs. But most analysts linked the sudden formation of a Lebanese cabinet to the Syrian turmoil.

In explaining the haste and speed with which this government was eventually formed, the Syrian parameter is indeed more than central and the Syrian context predominant. After having ousted Saad Hariri and neutralized him in anticipation of the conclusions of the tribunal, and having tilted the Lebanese political balance of power by pushing the Jumblatt bloc towards March 8, Syria--now facing an existential battle inside its system and territory--was badly in need of a secure Lebanese neighbor along with additional tools for confronting one of the most acute crises of the Assad era. Confronted with Arab ignorance, Turkish defiance and growing isolation and threats by the West, Damascus' message was "Lebanon is, despite all this, still ours."

This was meant both as a message that Syria's capacity to generate movement outside its frontiers--today in Lebanon and tomorrow in Iraq--was intact, and to signify that Lebanon could now be added by Syria's antagonists as yet another theater of confrontation with Damascus. Syria was in fact sending a message very similar to the one sent in September 2004--the forcible extension of President Emile Lahoud's mandate--to the international community, and specifically to France and the United States that sought to encircle Syria with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. Hizballah was then a crucial and effective ally and enforcer. The latest message aims to inform the entire world that is pressuring Assad that the alliance with Iran is, despite troubled times, stronger than ever and effective enough to produce a political reality in Beirut.

Still, despite the overwhelming Syrian parameter, internal Lebanese considerations also have to be factored into any explanation of the sudden government formation. These are mainly related to Hizballah, which once again helped its Christian ally Michel Aoun grab the lion's share in the new coalition, including strategic portfolios essential to the mission of cleansing the civil and security administration of residual pro-Hariri personnel.

Then, too, we need to comprehend an interesting sign of Shiite tactical political flexibility: the "gift" made by the Amal-Hizballah tandem to the Sunnis, who received one more portfolio than traditionally permitted under Lebanese custom, and at the expense of the Shiite share. By offering this concession, the allies of Damascus and Tehran were of course showing sectarian "generosity" and openness. But were they not also helping Damascus send a signal that its Lebanese--hence, Syrian--policies are not anti-Sunni in essence?

All this leads to the crucial question looming today in Lebanon in light of the Syrian quagmire. If the Syrian regime gets weaker, will Hizballah gradually become more flexible in terms of Lebanonization and civilianization? Or, on the contrary, will it increasingly pursue a radical position and bitterly defend its share of the Lebanese system while echoing Tehran's dictum that Assad's rule in Syria is a red line?-Published 30/6/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org

Joseph Bahout teaches Middle East politics at Science-Po Paris, and is a senior researcher at Academie Diplomatique Internationale.

Najib Mikati's mission impossible
 Karim Emile Bitar

Speaking to an American audience in 1969, amid tensions between Canada and the US, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, arguably one of the twentieth century's most remarkable western statesmen, half-jokingly said: "Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

Trudeau's quote, a good allegory of the Lebanese-Syrian relationship, becomes ominous in today's context. If Lebanon is bound to be affected by every Syrian twitch and grunt, one wonders how it can weather a full-fledged and unprecedented Syrian revolution that might end in sectarian strife or in regime change.

Fostering stability and helping Lebanon avoid the potential subverting impact of the Syrian revolution is but one of the Herculean tasks the Mikati government will have to confront, alongside the upcoming indictment of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is bound to reinforce communal tensions and restart fierce polemics.

While these two existential threats are looming, the Mikati government will have to start dealing with the country's devastating socio-economic woes, at a time when analysts are considerably lowering the forecasts for economic growth (the International Monetary Fund is predicting feeble 2.5 percent growth for 2011 while the Economist Intelligence Unit's estimate is only 1.3 percent, significantly less than Lebanon's 2009 and 2010 figures).

The new government will also have to conduct a series of delicate structural reforms, including the overhaul of the Lebanese telecom industry and the restructuring of the National Social Security Fund. It must rapidly generate minimum confidence as to encourage tourism and foreign investments, which have taken a bad turn. Finally, it should devise a modern electoral law for the 2013 legislative elections.

Does the government have the political wherewithal to meet these challenges? The answer is a resounding "no". Too many storms to weather, too frail an embarkation--it's a mission impossible if there ever was one.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati is unquestionably a man of many talents. His business acumen has been highly praised. His brand of centrism appeals to those Lebanese who are tired of the constant political tug-of-war. In 2005, Mikati came to power under a difficult, albeit more consensual, situation yet managed to conduct the transition in orderly fashion, gaining the respect of both sides of the aisle.

During the long months of political vacuum that preceded the formation of his government, Mikati remained eerily calm and optimistic despite being harshly attacked. He was accused of being a Hizballah stooge, a traitor to his own Sunni community, a mere extension of the crumbling Syrian regime. He kept his cool during the sectarian incitement campaign, never hitting back. However, he did send clear messages stating that the presidency of the council of ministers was nobody's "chasse gardee" and that he was as entitled as anyone else to hold the job.

Mikati appealed to the Lebanese people to give him the benefit of the doubt and to hold him accountable later, on the basis of his government's accomplishments. The Maronite patriarch backed him, suggesting that Lebanese should deal positively with the new government. Mikati felt he could succeed, and he has a reasonable measure of western and Gulf support, otherwise he would not have accepted the job. But large segments of the Lebanese population will not forget what they consider an original sin: the conditions under which this government was formed.

In any other country, parliamentarians switching sides to bring down the government would have been a perfectly legitimate part of the democratic game. In Lebanon's explosive sectarian configuration, amid a raging debate on Hizballah's arsenal, the move was perceived as foul play.

The March 14 coalition, already at loggerheads with Mikati, blames his government for returning Lebanon to a bygone era and does not hide its willingness to bring down the new government. Mikati's own allies might soon prove to be an even bigger problem. For the first time, Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement holds the lion's share of the cabinet and several major portfolios. Will the FPM be able to bring about the long-promised "change and reform"? Or will it hit a stone wall and be forced to engage in bitter polemics while raising its voice louder and louder?

As for Lebanon's independents and civil society activists, they're not pinning any hopes on the new government. They were shocked by the conspicuous absence of women, which they perceived as an expression of disdain. Women's rights activists heard the message loud and clear. It was as if Lebanon's entire political class was telling them: "We don't care, we're not even trying. Don't bother us with silly issues; we have bigger fish to fry. Get on with the program or get lost."

This government is one of the few post-Taif governments that is not a national unity government. Counter-intuitively, this is not necessarily a bad thing; rather than being consensus-builders, past national unity governments were promoters of paralysis, preventing accountability and the transfer of power. On the other hand, one could argue that, more than ever, the present circumstances beg for unity.

In Lebanon's seven decades of so-called independence, it is difficult to recall a single instance when a government started with such low expectations and ratings. Lebanese governments usually enjoy a significant grace period. People are initially overenthusiastic and pin all their hopes on the new prime minister. It is only later that they grow skeptical and disenchanted. This was the case in 1992 when Rafik Hariri became prime minister for the first time amid sky-high expectations. It was also the case in 1998 when Hariri's old nemesis, Selim El-Hoss, promised to restore integrity and accountability.

Ironically, the morose climate and the low expectations could help Najib Mikati. Savvy businessmen often argue that it is a smart strategy to under-promise and over-deliver. If Mikati can apply the maxim to Lebanese politics, it would certainly be a refreshing surprise.-Published 30/6/2011 bitterlemons-international.org

Karim Emile Bitar is a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris and the editor of "L'ENA hors les murs" monthly magazine. He also published "Regards sur la France" (Seuil).

Lebanon's new zero-sum government
 Franklin Lamb

After nearly half a year of attempts to form a cabinet, the new Hizballah-controlled government under the leadership of its Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the 12-member committee tasked with drafting the platform of the new government has reportedly completed its work within its 30-day constitutional deadline.

It did so by adopting a draft policy statement that, according to Information Minister Walid al-Daouq, resulted in a "consensus" on the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Late information from al-Daouq's office and his staff says that this statement guarantees "respect of international resolutions" and "pursuit" of the tribunal, "which was established to fulfill justice away from politicization and vengeance and in a manner that does not harm Lebanon's stability and unity."

Lebanese political analysts speculated that the Mikati government was trying to finalize its policy before the tribunal releases its indictment in the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.

It now appears that the cabinet will quickly ratify the policy statement and schedule a vote of confidence for the first week of July. If indeed this happens, it suggests that the forces are aligned on each side to return to the political conflict of the past six years.

The new pro-Hizballah majority is very keen on putting the tribunal and the Hariri assassination behind it so it can concentrate on presenting its political, social and economic programs. Much work has been done by Hizballah to prepare a domestic program that it is confident can fundamentally improve the lives of the vast majority of the Lebanese population by ending government corruption, improving the agricultural sector, reviving the economy of the Bekaa Valley and providing services for all Lebanese citizens--wherever they live or to whichever sect or political group they belong.

But it will not be easy. The new minority March 14 pro-American and pro-Saudi coalition has repeatedly signaled that it will fight, from outside the government, every program or stance it disagrees with. March 14 is applying pressure domestically with regards to the tribunal, creating a hard target of the "international commitments" that are aimed at Hizballah.

Mikati, his staff and political allies have worked to avoid a confrontation with the international community on this by finding a formula acceptable to all parties participating in the government. Mikati has reiterated Lebanon's commitment to international obligations, including the tribunal and UN resolution 1701, which ended the summer 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon.

Still, the past few days have witnessed a return to intense US, French and British interference in the new government's effort to launch itself.

"We discussed many issues, including Security Council Resolution 1701 and I reiterated my expectation and the expectation of the secretary-general that the government will restate its full support and commitment to the full implementation of 1701 in its ministerial declaration," UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams told reporters on June 29 after meeting Mikati at the Grand Serail.

As if on cue, US Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly weighed in to encourage American allies in the March 14 coalition. Connelly told the media that Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's recent statements against the US embassy in Lebanon are solely aimed at "deflecting attention away from internal tensions in the party".

After holding talks with Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun she said, "We discussed the new government and I repeated the US decision which is: we will judge the new government by its composition, its ministerial statement, and the actions it takes. Of course, I reiterated the American expectation that the new government will continue to respect Lebanon's international obligations including those related to Security Council Resolution 1701 and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon."

While this might appear to be just a continuation of the political jousting of the past six years, the new government and (in particular) Hizballah operatives insist that Lebanon has entered a new era of resistance and that the new government can and will win widespread support by proving its capabilities to govern fairly for all of Lebanon. If it succeeds--and it intends to--it believes that neither regional unrest nor tribunal indictments of some of its members will outweigh the political support it can gain by substantially and positively changing the lives of its fellow citizens.-Published 30/6/2011 bitterlemons-international.org

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon.

A transition period
 Eyal Zisser

Quietly, ever so quietly, almost clandestinely and without any observers, a new government was formed in Lebanon this past week. At a time when the eyes of everyone in the region and the world were turned to the events in Syria, Lebanon's big neighbor to the east, the last threads of the delicate fabric of a coalition were tied together in Beirut and a government headed by Najib Mikati progressed from the realm of theoretical possibility to accomplished fact.

The establishment of the new government in Lebanon comes as somewhat of a surprise, since for nearly half a year Mikati had failed repeatedly in his efforts to that end.

We recall that the origins of Mikati's government go back to the "quiet revolution" of sorts that Hizballah carried out at the end of 2010, when it engineered the fall of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government, which had been ruling Lebanon since the parliamentary elections of June 2009.

Hizballah initiated its efforts to bring down Hariri's government because he refused to commit himself in advance to shelving, if not to "throwing into the dustbin of history", the conclusions of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the committee investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The committee's conclusions, which are likely to point an accusing finger at Hizballah as the actor behind the assassination, are supposed to be published in the coming months, following a lengthy delay. Hizballah feared Saad Hariri would use the trbunal's conclusions to damage the organization's legitimacy.

Hizballah was joined in this undertaking by its political allies and partners in the March 8 camp, the Shiite Amal organization led by Nabih Berri and the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement led by General Michel Aoun. However, the scale was really tipped by none other than the leader of the Lebanese Druze, Walid Jumblatt, who at the end of 2010 deserted Hariri's March 14 camp and went over to its opponents. He did so because he wanted to draw closer to Syria and receive its backing in order better to deal with the advent to power of the Shiites in general and Hizballah in particular, which threatened the Druze standing in Lebanon.

And indeed, it was Damascus that cooked up the recipe for constructing a new Lebanese coalition that would include the "motley crew" of Hizballah, Michel Aoun, the Druze led by Jumblatt and a group of Sunni members of parliament close to Damascus, with prime minister-designate Najib Mikati to head the whole thing.

But this is old news: the entire Syrian undertaking was devised and set in motion over half a year ago. Meanwhile, the fire of discontent broke out and spread throughout the Middle East. Little by little it spread from Tunis to Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, until it finally reached Syria as well. Within barely a few weeks, the Syrian public's surge of protest spread throughout the country, threatening the stability and ultimately even the existence of the Syrian regime. President Bashar Assad's chair was (and is) shaking, and under these circumstances he was compelled to turn all his attention to what was happening at home.

The unsettled situation in Syria also had an impact on the players in Lebanon. Several of them seemingly began weighing their steps anew, or at the very least adopted a wait-and-see posture until the picture in Syria was clarified. This was the case with both Jumblatt and Mikati.

After all, the Lebanese prime minister is a Sunni Muslim. The members of the Sunni community in Syria are leading the surge of protest against Assad's regime. The regime's fall would deliver a severe blow to its regional partners, led by Iran and Hizballah. Hence, the Sunni community in Lebanon has to calculate its steps with great caution; this is indeed the way Mikati has conducted himself recently.

As usual in Lebanon, considerations of internal politics, like disputes over portfolios and authority, also contributed to endless delays in the formation of the new government. The situation was made worse by the fact that the "arbitrator" from Damascus was not free to settle quarrels as was his habit in the past.

So in many ways, the Syrian intifada led to the endless delays in the process of forming a new government in Lebanon. However, ultimately, it also brought about a resolution of the imbroglio and the establishment of the new government. This is because the Syrian regime, finding itself with its back to the wall and fighting for its very existence, came to the conclusion that it must secure its western border and establish a government on which it can rely if and when there is trouble. So Syria finally exerted its influence and helped resolve the quarrels that had been preventing the establishment of the Mikati government.

Yet this government belongs to the past. It is rooted in the situation that prevailed in the region over half a year ago. From herein, every change in Syria will have implications for the Lebanese government's effectiveness and survivability.

In the short term, the Mikati government should be able to contribute to calming passions inside of Lebanon and keeping clear of the storm sweeping the rest of the region. Echoes of this storm were heard last week in clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in the northern Lebanon town of Tripoli.

However, in the long term the Mikati government's chances of surviving are veiled in obscurity. In any case, it is a government established by Syria together with Hizballah. In this regard, it constitutes a return to the situation that prevailed in Lebanon over a decade ago, in the 1990s, when governments--even those like the ones headed by the late Rafiq Hariri--were accustomed to accepting and acting upon the dictates of Damascus and even of Hizballah.

On the other hand, what we are witnessing in Lebanon is clearly a transition period that will probably continue until the picture in Damascus becomes clear, since the real story is unfolding there and not in Beirut. What happens in Syria will determine whether the establishment of the Mikati government does indeed signify a return to the days of Pax Syriana in Lebanon or whether Syria is weakened to such an extent that it loses control over what happens in Lebanon. In the latter case, a vacuum will be created in which Hizballah, supported by Iran, confronts the Sunni forces supported by the Arab awakening. The latter, lest we forget, is being carried out largely by Sunni Muslims and supported by Sunni Muslim powers, including primarily Turkey.-Published 30/6/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org

Eyal Zisser is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and holds the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.

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