Lebanon sometimes looks for leaders who are not affiliated to any of its powerful forces or families as a way of easing tensions. In the case of new Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, this may at least partially explain how he managed to earn the votes of 72 out of 118 MPs with a mandate to form a new government.
However, according to experts, there are no guarantees that Mikati, a successful businessman and ex-prime minister, will be able to form a new coalition government, at least not without regional and international support.
Two of the country’s Sunni politicians have failed to do so since last August’s devastating explosions in the Port of Beirut, the first being former diplomat Mustafa Adib who lost hopes of doing so after a month.
The second was Saad Al-Hariri, another former prime minister and the son of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri. Saad Al-Hariri fought a nine-month battle with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, backed by the Shia group Hizbullah, over the new government line-up.
After meeting with Aoun for less than half an hour on 15 July, he told reporters that “it is clear that we will not be able to agree with the president” on a new government.
Al-Hariri had reportedly refused to give Aoun and Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law and leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, a third of the seats in the new cabinet including the interior and justice ministries.
This is widely known as the “blocking third” in Lebanon, as the resignation of a third of the ministers inevitably leads to the collapse of the government.
The context of Al-Hariri’s efforts counted for a lot, as the clashes took place against the background of French and EU sanctions against various Lebanese politicians for creating deadlock in the country’s politics and the halt of Arab financial support for Lebanon amid fears of total Hizbullah control and a heartbreaking set of socio-economic challenges.
One US dollar is now worth 1,514 Lebanese pounds, and fuel prices have increased by more than a third after the caretaker government of Hassan Diab reduced subsidies. Lebanon is facing huge shortages of electricity, medicines, and basic supplies. How the country is able to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic at the same time is almost unimaginable.
These are the conditions that Mikati has inherited, a man described by the international media as “Harvard-educated” who was the public works and transport minister in three cabinets from 1998 to 2004. He led the government for three years from June 2011 until February 2014, and he was prime minister for three months after Rafik Al-Hariri’s assassination and Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.
Those were tough times, but today things are if anything even harder, especially as Mikati cannot guarantee the extent of any European and US support he will receive.
“When French President Emmanuel Macron came to Lebanon in August last year, he met with Hizbullah MPs, and, as reported in the French newspaper Le Figaro at the time, told them he wanted to work with them. Similarly, the Biden administration is set to lift sanctions on Hizbullah’s patron in Tehran, which will trickle down eventually to Hizbullah and through it also to Lebanon. In other words, the US posture towards Iran, and France’s towards Hizbullah, makes the proposition of EU sanctions even more moot,” Tony Badran, a Lebanon expert at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Al-Ahram Weekly two days before Al-Hariri stepped down.
Meanwhile, Mikati does not seem to be optimistic about his prospects either, saying on Monday that “frankly, with regard to the government, I was hoping the pace would be faster” after a meeting with Aoun.
This is one reason why Lebanon will need the support of regional actors, including Egypt, to finalise the formation of a new government. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met Al-Hariri in Cairo in July and “reaffirmed Egypt’s full support for Al-Hariri’s political path, which aims at restoring stability to Lebanon.”
On 31 July, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri noted that Egypt wants to help Lebanon end its current crisis, stressing that there are strong relations between Egypt and the Lebanese people. His comments came during a meeting with Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, a sign that settling the Lebanese crisis is a regional priority for Egypt.
Egypt has been providing financial and technical assistance to the Lebanese port sector since last year’s blasts, Egyptian Ambassador to Lebanon Yasser Elwi said on 29 July. The announcement followed the Egyptian Arab Contractors Company being awarded a project to develop the northern port of Tripoli and its facilities.
Further economic and technological projects by Egypt in Lebanon will follow, Elwi said.
Rabha Seif Allam, a Lebanon expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said that several political forces in Lebanon have said they will not join Mikati’s government, especially since a new one will be negotiated after next year’s parliamentary elections.
She said that Egypt “has always represented the voice of wisdom” in Lebanon, especially when the parties in Lebanese politics have been backed by regional forces such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Its willingness to deal with all the parties in Lebanese politics sets Egypt apart from other states in the region. Egypt has very good relations with Shia Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, Allam said.
“The reason is that Egypt does not back one Lebanese side against the other. It backs all the state institutions in Lebanon, including the army, and it has played an important role in the selection of the Lebanese mufti, who is independent,” she said.
“Egyptian companies, especially those working in the fields of electricity and energy, have always been present in Lebanon. After the 2006 war, Egypt contributed to the reconstruction of many electricity facilities in the country,” she added.
She said that Turkey had sought to win the Tripoli port project in order to replace the port destroyed in Beirut and that Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups in the northern city had welcomed the Turkish step.
“It was highly competent on Egypt’s part to earn what the Turks were looking forward to getting,” Allam concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly