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Mikati's Resignation Shakes Up Lebanese Politics

Prime Minister Najib Mikati's resignation has sent shock waves through Lebanon and threatened the country's stability, although some political factions may stand to benefit, writes Scarlett Haddad.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati talks during an interview with Reuters at the Grand Serail, the government headquarters in Beirut March 12, 2013. Mikati urged Arab states to help Lebanon cope with a flood of Syrian refugees who are stretching its scarce resources and will need at least $370 million in support this year. Picture taken March 12, 2013. To match Interview SYRIA-CRISIS/LEBANON REUTERS/Jamal Saidi (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS PROFILE) - RTR3EXH0

The news of the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday evening [March 22] was a bombshell. The Lebanese people suddenly felt as if the ground was shaking under their feet. Despite the criticism that has rained down from all sides on the government, it has managed to demonstrate a modicum of stability in facing this raging storm.

Nevertheless, despite all concerns, nothing has happened on the ground. If anything, tension between the traditional protagonists has decreased. Meanwhile, it seemed there was a brief hiatus in the clashes between the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods in Tripoli. One could even say that this resignation appears to have suited all parties inside Lebanon.

Nevertheless, a summary of the facts is necessary.

According to Mikati’s own admissions — confirmed by the Mufti of the Republic Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, who contacted him nearly an hour after the announcement of his resignation — the prime minister prepared his resignation on Thursday evening, on the eve of the meeting of the cabinet in Baabda, as he felt that the general climate was negative. This was especially true as he attempted to discuss the formation of a committee to oversee the elections, which has been strongly opposed by ministers affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah and Amal.

Mikati attended the meeting without much hope, but wanted to give it one last chance. As expected, the ministers of the March 8 coalition, along with those of the Change and Reform bloc, rejected the idea of forming the supervisory committee. Mikati also proposed extending the term of Maj. Gen. Achraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), who was scheduled to retire on April 1, knowing that such a proposal would also be rejected.

The meeting was then adjourned. Mikati returned to the Grand Serail and began contacting the different parties to announce his decision to resign. He also made one last attempt with Hezbollah, believing that the party — as its secretary general has repeatedly stated in his speeches — would not abandon the government during such a delicate period. He called the political adviser of Hassan Nasrallah numerous times and it wasn’t until the fourth time that he answered, saying: “Greetings from Nasrallah. Do whatever suits you.” He made up his mind and took his decision, despite attempts by certain European ambassadors and ministers to make him renege on it, according to Mikati's statements.

When it comes to Mikati’s proposal to extend the term of Rifi, this has been the trump card that has allowed him to emerge as a leader in his Sunni stronghold of Tripoli. For the rest, the game was over.

In fact, according to the prime minister's relatives, Mikati was being pressured by international parties to hold the legislative elections on time as scheduled, which means that they would be held based on the current electoral law. According to estimates, however, this law gives an overwhelming majority to March 14 and Walid Jumblatt. Along with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Mikati decided to initiate procedures to hold elections on time — in accordance with the constitution — so that on the eve of the elections preparations would be complete and one possible legislation is still in force.

Hezbollah and its allies, Amal and the Change and Reform bloc, sensed a snare and decided to block the procedures. They made it clear that they would not allow the supervisory committee for the upcoming polls to be formed, which drew a clear threat on the part of the president that he would no longer convene the council of ministers to hold meetings in Baabda. The standoff was on. Each party believed that the other would back off at the last minute, knowing that a few months ago (following the assassination Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in October) this government was considered a necessity by the international community.

However, the situation has changed. The international community, which is probably most troubled by this resignation, believes that it should not intervene at this stage in light of the internal struggles against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis, which renders the government in an almost untenable position. The prime minister and the president of the republic realized that they would not be able to hold elections based on the current law.

At the same time, Hezbollah and its allies believed that the priority was to get rid of this threat weighing on their heads, namely holding elections based on the current electoral law. Jumblatt, on the other hand, was satisfied as he would be playing his favorite role, which is to tip the scales in favor of March 14 or March 8, making himself courted by everyone. For his part, Mikati, who has calculated his move so that he emerges as a hero in the eyes of his community, managed to reconnect with his rival and main detractor, the Future Movement.

The Future Movement was also content as it has finally obtained one of its main demands, which is the government's resignation. As for Gen. Michel Aoun — who is said to be the biggest loser in this deal, as no other government would allow him to have ten ministers — he has finally got rid of a government where he held a strong position in principle, but has failed to take any significant steps, which had begun to discredit him among his popular base.

Thus, this situation favors all sides and may also allow the tension on the ground to be defused. The government, which is now limited to managing day-to-day state affairs, cannot in all likelihood hold elections, since it cannot form the supervisory committee or appoint substitute members of the Constitutional Council, whose terms are completed.

This situation allows all parties to take a breath and focus on the developments in Syria, without having to report back to the government.

Scarlett Haddad is an analyst at the Francophone Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour. She specializes in Lebanese domestic political issues, in addition to Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian matters as addressed from Lebanon's perspective, including topics concerning Hezbollah and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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