Lebanon's government resigns in a bid to ease divisions and calm tensions
Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced the resignation of his government Friday in a dramatic move that came amid political divisions and threats to Lebanon’s security and stability from escalating tension on the border with Syria and fighting in the northern city of Tripoli.
Mikati’s decision came shortly after Hezbollah and its March 8 allies foiled attempts during a Cabinet session to create a body to supervise the June 9 parliamentary polls and rejected the premier’s proposal for the extension of the police chief’s term, underlining long-running splits within the government.
March 14 leaders swiftly hailed Mikati’s move, saying the government’s resignation would clear the way for the relaunching of National Dialogue and the formation of a new Cabinet to supervise the elections.
In announcing his resignation, Mikati, in power for nearly two years, called for National Dialogue aimed at forming “a salvation Cabinet” to meet the country’s major political, security and economic challenges.
“Today I announce the resignation of the government, hoping that this will constitute the only gateway for the major political blocs in Lebanon to assume their responsibilities and come together to bring Lebanon out of the unknown,” Mikati told a news conference at the Grand Serail.
His resignation came a few hours after President Michel Sleiman suspended Cabinet sessions after March 8 ministers blocked a decision on the formation of a committee to oversee the upcoming elections. The March 8 ministers hold a majority in Mikati’s 30-member Cabinet.
Mikati is expected Saturday to hand in his resignation to Sleiman, who will ask him to continue in a caretaker capacity and then call for the launch of parliamentary consultations for the naming of a new prime minister-designate.
Parliamentary sources said Mikati’s resignation dealt “a strong blow” to the March 8 parties and was similar to the strike they dealt to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2011, when 11 March 8 ministers resigned in a move that led to the toppling of Hariri’s Cabinet.
At the time, the March 8 parties expressed joy that Hariri entered the White House as prime minister and met with President Barack Obama but left as an outgoing premier.
With his resignation, Mikati avoided several major thorny issues such as the fighting in Tripoli, the financing of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a new election law and the extension of the term of Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, director general of the Internal Security Forces, the sources said.
They added that if Mikati’s resignation took place in the absence of a reasonable scenario to speed up the formation of a new Cabinet, the country might enter the unknown.
According to the sources, no elections may be held without a new Cabinet because these polls need funds and the transfer of allocations, something a resigned government cannot do.
The sources said National Dialogue for which Sleiman would call following Mikati’s resignation might serve as a venue for the rival political leaders to agree on the formation of a new Cabinet and a new electoral law. However, this might require the extension of Parliament’s mandate for at least three months, the sources said.
Mikati said he decided to resign after the formation of a committee to supervise the elections was blocked and his bid to avoid vacuum in the post of the ISF chief, who goes on retirement on April 1, was thwarted by March 8 ministers.
Over the past few weeks, the formation of an election supervisory committee and Mikati’s proposal to extend Rifi’s term posed two explosive issues that could have led to Cabinet’s collapse.
The Hezbollah-led March 8 parties rejected the naming of experts to a committee to oversee the elections that, they argue, would signal an official step to proceed with the polls based on the 1960 election law, which they reject. Likewise, March 8 ministers opposed the extension of the term of Rifi long perceived by these parties as loyal to the opposition March 14 coalition.
Mikati said there was no alternative to National Dialogue sponsored by Sleiman to rescue Lebanon and end political divisions that were a result of the bloody 2-year-old conflict in Syria.
“Dialogue sponsored by the president is inevitable. There is no way for Lebanon’s salvation and protection except through this dialogue that opens the way for the formation of a salvation government in which all Lebanese political forces are represented to shoulder the responsibility of saving the country,” he added.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, said the Cabinet’s resignation would set the stage for a new round of inter-Lebanese dialogue. March 14 leaders have rejected Sleiman’s call for National Dialogue, insisting on the government’s resignation first.
“We have reached a stage where it is difficult to meet the constitutional deadline for parliamentary elections,” Siniora said in an interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya channel. “The government’s resignation opens the door for the resumption of dialogue and the formation of a new Cabinet.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said he appreciated Mikati’s resignation after March 8 parties insisted on pushing the country into a power vacuum.
Geagea called in a statement on Sleiman to quickly set a date for parliamentary consultations to name a new prime minister who would form “a new Cabinet to protect the people and the Constitution.”
Kataeb leader ex-President Amin Gemayel said he was surprised that the government, which he called “a government of contradictions,” had survived until now.
“Lebanese leaders must draw lessons. All leaders must at this stage have sufficient national sense to cooperate with the president to find a quick solution to this crisis as soon as possible,” Gemayel told LBCI.
Mikati said he had contemplated resignation twice during his tenure: once over the divisive issue of funding Lebanon’s share toward the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and the other following the Oct. 17 assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam Hasan, head of the ISF’s Information Branch.
Mikati formed his 30-member Cabinet on June 13, 2011, months after ministers loyal to the March 8 coalition forced the collapse of Hariri’s government.
The Cabinet was formed in the wake of the uprising in Syria, a subject that has divided the country and raised the specter of a spillover from the conflict.
Mikati’s resignation came against the backdrop of two days of clashes, fueled by the Syrian conflict, between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad in his home city of Tripoli in the north, that left at least six people dead.
It also came following a string of deadly incidents on the Lebanese-Syrian border, including a Syrian airstrike in the northeastern Bekaa Valley this week that heightened fears of the turmoil next door spilling over into Lebanon. – With additional reporting by Hasan Lakkis