Multiple challenges await Lebanon's govt

Multiple challenges await Lebanon's govt

The recent formation of a Lebanese government  was met by a howl of protest from the West and Israel rather than congratulations for prime minister Najib Mikati who laboured for five months to accomplish this task. The US, its Lebanese allies, Israel and some Western commentators complain that the Mikati cabinet is a “Hizbollah government” or a “government made in Syria.”  These accusations have enraged president Michel Suleiman, seen by the West and its critics as a fair-minded, neutral figure.

 The aim of the Western-Israeli game is to smear the Mikati government by promoting the notion that it is dominated by Hizbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran and designated by the US and Israel as a ‘terrorist organisation.’

Equally divided cabinet

The over-large 30-member cabinet consists of 19 ministers chosen by the ruling parliamentary bloc and 11 - a minority with a veto - selected by the president and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.  The cabinet is equally divided between Christians and Muslims, in line with Lebanon’s long-standing communal carve-up of political positions.

The two Shia parties, Hizbollah and its ally, Amal, hold only two seats each. The other 15 have been distributed among Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic parties, the Armenian Tashaak, a pan-Arab nationalist party, and two Druze feudal parties.  The Shia community, 30 per cent of the total population represented by Hizbollah and Amal, is seriously under-represented.   

Three ministers, including Finance Minister, Muhammad Safadi, served in the government headed by Saad Hariri ousted in January. Four others had served in previous governments.  Therefore, this is hardly a government dominated by radicals.  Instead, this cabinet is the usual mix of traditional Lebanese interests and political forces.

Nevertheless, independent centrist Mikati, a second-time premier, admitted that the government faces serious “obstacles, challenges and traps.”

The obstacles and challenges are likely to be raised by ousted prime minister Saad Hariri and his opposition coalition while the traps could be set by the US and allies determined to bring down Mikati. Hariri’s national unity cabinet fell in January when Hizbollah and its allies pulled out because he refused to withdraw his government’s backing and financial support from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon due to put on trial those accused of involvement in the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the ousted premier’s father.
The investigation into the assassination was highly politicised from the outset by Saad Hariri, other pro-Western politicians and Western powers determined to place the blame on Syria.  Investigators initially implicated Damascus, but, after failing to provide proof, shifted the blame to members of Hizbollah, Syria’s ally.  Hizbollah has rejected these findings and slammed the investigators as tools of the US and Israel. 

Hizbollah wants Mikati to avoid the ‘trap’ of the tribunal in order to prevent accusations from being levelled at its members and to protect ‘the resistance,’ the movement’s military wing, the main armed force still standing against Israel’s occupation of Arab territory. 

The US and, to a lesser extent France, the prime movers of the investigation and the tribunal, all too clearly seek to use prosecutions of Hizbollah members as means to disarm its fighters.

The formation of Mikati’s government resurrected a long-standing division between politicians allied to the US/West and political figures rooted in the Arab world. This division has caused civil wars in 1958 and 1975-90 and the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions.  The first Lebanese civil war, precipitated by a president who wanted to stay in office, was resolved by Indian diplomat Rajeshwar Dayal; the second by US-blessed Syrian military intervention.

One of the chief tasks of the Mikati government will be to keep the peace along the border between south Lebanon and Israel where an Indian battalion has been deployed alongside European and Asian troops in a 15,000 strong UN force.

Hizbollah, which has the best trained and armed force in the country, is eager to maintain quiet along the frontier but would respond with considerable force to any major Israeli provocation. Mikati’s government must also deal with an ailing economy, falling tourist arrivals, spiralling corruption, rising house prices and rents, shortages of electricity and water, and unrest in Syria across the border. The revolt, which threatens to destabilise Lebanon, is already disrupting its transit trade in fruit and vegetables and manufactured goods to the Arab hinterland.   

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