Najib Mikati: billionaire businessman named Lebanon's next prime minister

Mikati received backing from Iran-backed Hezbollah and former prime minister-designate Saad Hariri

President Michel Aoun on Monday designated former prime minister Najib Mikati to form a new Cabinet following almost a year of political paralysis that exacerbated the small Mediterranean nation’s financial meltdown.

Mr Mikati won the backing of 72 MPs, including those affiliated with the Iran-backed Hezbollah, its Shiite ally Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal Movement, former prime minister-designate Saad Hariri's Future Movement and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party.

Speaking from Baabda Palace after the announcement, Mr Mikati thanked the MPs who had backed him and said he hoped those who did not will co-operate with him to “find solutions” and form a new government.

“I don't have a magic wand and can't perform miracles … but I have studied the situation for a while and have international guarantees,” Mr Mikati said.

He said he is confident he can form a government to enact the French reform initiative, which includes a government of experts able to pass the reforms needed to tap into millions in pledged foreign economic aid.

“Extinguishing the fire can only be done with the co-operation of all Lebanese and I am reassured... I would not have taken this step if I did not have external guarantees and if I did not know that someone wanted to put out the fire,” Mr Mikati said.

The billionaire businessmen, however, failed to secure the support of any of the country’s major Christian parties — the biggest of which are the Free Patriotic Patriotic Movement, founded by the president and currently led by his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, and its political rival, the Lebanese Forces.

Mr Mikati was nominated for the post, which is reserved for a Sunni Muslim under Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system, by a club of former prime ministers led by Mr Hariri.

Mr Hariri stepped down this month after a months-long standoff with the president, whom he accused of blocking the formation of a government of non-partisan experts in which Mr Bassil would lack any veto power.

On Monday, Mr Hariri said he had nominated Mr Mikati, a two-time former prime minister, to form a government in line with the same principles he had upheld during his failed bid.

“I nominated Mikati on the basis that he will follow the same constitutional path that we agreed upon … to form a government as soon as possible,” Mr Hariri told reporters at the presidential palace following his meeting with the president on Monday.

Hezbollah, a staunch ally of Mr Aoun, downplayed the prospects that a new prime minister-designate will lead to the quick formation of a new Cabinet, hinting that a political agreement over its makeup remains far from certain.

“Today, with the emergence of indications that allude to the possibility of forming a government, which we don't know whether will succeed or not, it is normal that our bloc supports this possibility,” the head of Hezbollah's Loyalty to Resistance parliamentary bloc, Mohamad Raad, said after nominating Mr Mikati.

However, Mr Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah and the target of corruption-related US sanctions, did not follow suit. He denied Mr Mikati the support of a large Christian parliamentary bloc.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Mikati will secure Mr Bassil’s vote of confidence in Parliament if the prime minister-designate manages to reach an agreement with the president over the Cabinet’s lineup.

The president had sparred with Mr Hariri for months before the former prime minister stood down and nominated Mr Mikati. Mr Aoun had argued that Mr Hariri was seeking to dictate the Cabinet lineup in breach of the constitution.

Mr Bassil’s decision not to back Mr Mikati raised concerns that the latter would suffer the same fate as Mr Hariri and prolong the deadlock that has accentuated Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis. Mr Mikati will be meeting with lawmakers in Parliament on Tuesday to discuss the Cabinet formation.

Tripoli MP Nicolas Nahhas, a member of Mr Mikati's parliamentary bloc, said the international community was keen on providing financial support for Lebanon only if a Cabinet committed to reform is formed.

"There are no external guarantees per se, but the international community expressed its intention and keenness to discuss international financial support if a Cabinet is formed," Mr Nahhas said.

Fadi Ahmar, a university professor and political analyst, said the same conditions outlined by rival groups still seem to apply.

"It will be hard for any of the rival groups to concede but I wouldn't completely rule out a breakthrough because all parties are under pressure given the social and economic crisis that Lebanon is facing," Professor Ahmar said.

The spiralling economic situation, which has gripped Lebanon since late 2019, has plunged over half the population into poverty as the national currency lost over 90 per cent of its value against the dollar.

The Lebanese pound gained 10 per cent early Monday morning as news of Mr Mikati’s imminent designation surfaced.

The pound had dropped by over 20 per cent since Mr Hariri announced he was abandoning efforts to form a Cabinet amid a deepening political rift with the president.

The currency crisis led to shortages in vital imports of medication and fuel, causing disruptions in electricity, water supplies and internet connectivity.

The situation was compounded by the explosion that hit Beirut port last August, killing over 200 people and destroying thousands of properties across the capital.

The explosion forced caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab’s resignation, leaving the country without a functioning government.

The international community has said financial support is contingent on the formation of a Cabinet that enacts reforms to fight corruption and kick-start the economy.

Updated: July 27th 2021, 10:48 AM
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