Early Cracks Raise Questions about Cabinet’s Ability to Survive. Hardly two months in office and cracks have appeared in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet, the one-sided Hizbullah-dominated government widely hailed as a panacea for the country’s worsening political and economic ills. Hopes for the Mikati team to prove that it is different from the previous government of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose one-year rule was marked by internal splits and paralysis, were dashed quickly in a row that erupted last month among ministers over a controversial $1.2 billion electricity plan.
The plan, which calls for the allocation of $1.2 billion to the Energy Ministry to build power plants capable of producing 700 megawatts, has exposed a split in the Cabinet between Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader MP Michel Aoun on the one hand, and Mikati and Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader MP Walid Jumblat on the other. The draft law was presented by Aoun to Parliament before it was returned to the Cabinet for further study.
The plan has thrown the government into paralysis, threatening Cabinet solidarity among ministers who supposedly belong to the new Parliament majority which ousted Hariri from the premiership in January. Worse still, the new majority, which propelled Mikati to the top Sunni post in the country, is at stake because the row over the electricity plan is turning into a political battle between Aoun and Jumblat. The opposition newspaper Annahar said on August 25 that the rift over the electricity plan has transcended the technical, financial, legal and administrative framework, turning into a struggle for influence between Aoun and Jumblat inside the Cabinet.
After all, it was Jumblat’s change of heart in January that tilted the scale in favor of the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance after he decided that seven MPs of his 11-member parliamentary bloc would vote for naming Mikati as prime minister against Hariri. Jumblat’s dramatic move, in addition to the votes of Mikati and two allied Tripoli MPs, has since shifted the Parliament majority from the Western-backed March 14 coalition to the rival March 8 camp. The split over the electricity plan has raised questions about the Cabinet’s ability to produce and even survive as it faces a host of internal and external challenges. The failure of the Hariri Cabinet, which comprised representatives from March 8 and March 14 parties, was blamed on deep-rooted political differences between the two sides, mainly over the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which has divided the Lebanese into two rival camps.
Analysts point out that since the Mikati government was thrown into paralysis while addressing such a pressing issue as electricity, what will happen when crucial and more divisive issues such as the STL and Hizbullah’s weapons come up for discussion. It is no secret that the Mikati government, in which Hizbullah and its March 8 allies have a majority, is split over the STL. The split has worsened after the STL released its long-awaited indictment on June 30, accusing four Hizbullah members of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and demanded their arrests.
While Mikati has promised that his government will comply with U.N. resolutions, particularly Resolution 1757 which established the tribunal, Hizbullah has rejected the indictment, dismissing the STL as an “American-Israeli court.” Similarly, while Mikati has promised to arrest the four Hizbullah suspects if they are found in Lebanon, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has vowed never to turn them over, saying that Lebanese authorities will not be able to arrest them “even in 300 years.”
Mikati has acknowledged the paralysis within his Cabinet, but discounted the possibility of the government’s resignation over the electricity plan. “What we are seeing today and what is being said is a kind of paralyzing the Cabinet’s work. A constructive discussion is taking place on the electricity issue in order to provide electricity in the best way and within the required constraints and full transparency,” Mikati told reporters after visiting former Prime Minister Omar Karami at his home in the northern city of Tripoli on August 28. “With regard to what was said about paralyzing the Cabinet’s work, I am sure that everyone is keen on two things: The Cabinet’s stay in office and ensuring electricity,” Mikati said in his remarks which were published by Annahar on August 29.
The Cabinet, which was formed on June 13, is deadlocked over Aoun’s plan designed to improve electricity supply in a country notorious for its endemic power outages. Aoun, who has 10 ministers in Mikati’s 30-member government, has threatened to quit the Cabinet if the electricity plan was not endorsed. The Cabinet failed in two meetings last month to approve the $1.2 billion plan to develop the electricity sector. The next Cabinet session has been put off until Sept. 7 to give time for bilateral consultations to narrow differences over the plan.
The dispute in the Cabinet stems from demands by some ministers as to who should oversee the spending of the money for the implementation of the plan. Members of the opposition March 14 parties have criticized the plan because it would give Energy Minister Jibran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, access to $1.2 billion without any form of supervision. The dispute is mainly over a proposal made by ministers from Jumblat’s parliamentary bloc to form a technical committee which, along with Bassil, would oversee the implementation of the plan. While Mikati and ministers loyal to President Michel Suleiman support the committee proposal, Aoun and his ministers have rejected it, arguing that the spending powers should be assigned only to the energy minister.
Prospects for Survival
The early split among its members has raised questions about the prospects for the government to survive given the fact that a long-simmering dispute between the March 8 and March 14 parties over the STL had eventually led to the toppling of the Hariri government following the resignation of Hizbullah and its March 8 allies.
No doubt, there are internal and external factors that keep the government in place. Internally, if Jumblat decided to withdraw his three ministers and lend support to the rival March 14 camp, the fate of the government could be in jeopardy. But so far, there are no signs that Jumblat, who maintains good relations with Syria and Hizbullah, while staying neutral on the March 8-March 14 conflict, is planning a major policy shift against the current Parliament majority.
Externally, Syria, despite its preoccupation with a six-month-old internal uprising, strongly backs the Mikati Cabinet for many reasons, perhaps the most important of which is, in Damascus’ eyes, is that Mikati has replaced Hariri, who is now clearly and publicly standing on the side of Syrian protesters against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Hariri’s media outlets and Future MPs have kept up scathing campaigns against the Assad regime in recent weeks.
Analysts rule out the possibility of a change in Syria’s support for the Mikati government which has been accused by March 14 politicians of being a government led by Hizbullah and Syria. The contradictory attitudes within the government gave new ammunition to the opposition March 14 parties to step up their blistering attacks against the government, accusing Mikati of duplicity in his stance on the STL, given Hizbullah’s outright rejection of the tribunal and its decisions.
MP Nouhad Mashnouq, a member of Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc, assailed the government, accusing it of legitimizing political assassination. “This government is in place to legitimize assassination. It includes representatives of Hizbullah, whose [members] include the four accused in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. This government is acting like it was tasked with the protection of the accused rather than their arrest,” Mashnouq said in a speech on August 28.
A statement by the March 14 Secretariat General on August 24 called on the government to resign if it fails to arrest the four Hizbullah suspects. The right-wing Christian Phalange Party from the March 14 coalition has accused the government of trying to distract the people’s attention with its “internal differences” over the electricity issue. “The real problem lies in the issues of justice, illegitimate arms, sovereignty, security and the free national decision,” the party said in a statement after its meeting on August 28.