What does the new prime minister designate mean for Lebanon? – analysis

Mikati is Lebanon's richest man and was prime minister twice before, but now he faces two troublesome tasks: stymying political gridlock and fixing the disastrous economic situation.

Leading businessman Najib Mikati gestures at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 26, 2021. (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)
Leading businessman Najib Mikati gestures at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 26, 2021.
After almost two weeks of political free fall following the resignation of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Lebanese parliament on Monday designated Najib Mikati to form a government.
The billionaire will be the third politician to attempt the job since the explosion at the Port of Beirut a year ago that killed more than 200 people and forced the resignation of Hassan Diab.
Mikati, who is Lebanon’s richest man and formerly the prime minister twice, is now faced with the near-impossible task of forming a government. He began consultations with political parties on Tuesday, setting off on a task with no constitutional deadline after Hariri gave up after 10 months.
However, Mikati faces two troublesome tasks: stymieing political gridlock and fixing the disastrous economic situation.
The first task lies in the chaotic political situation. Political parties are deeply divided, especially along religious lines. The structure of the government itself intensifies this disunity, as positions are allocated by religious affiliation. Under the National Pact, the president of the country must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be Sunni, and the speaker of parliament must be Shi’ite.
Hezbollah further complicates the situation. The Iranian-backed Shi’ite group is both a major political party and militant group that is a political heavyweight in the country, earning it the reputation of being a “state within a state.” Its military adventurism across the region and its significant political power makes its support integral to any major decisions in the country.
Bringing together these different factions into one government is no small challenge, and Mikati’s successors have found it to be impossible.
Mikati’s second task lies in the economic situation. Since late 2019, the country has experienced a financial meltdown. The World Bank has described the situation in the country as one of the world’s worst crises since the mid-19th century.
Lebanon’s currency has lost more than 90% of its value, and half of the population is living below the poverty line. The country suffers from severe fuel shortages, as well as food, water and medicine scarcities.
Protests against the government appear to be near-permanent features in the country, including riots at gas stations and grocery stores in response to shortages.
To unlock much-needed international aid, Mikati needs to reform both its economic and political landscapes. The international community has signaled to Lebanon that aid is conditional on reforms that fight rampant corruption and mismanagement.
Part of Mikati’s charge also lies in resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan, which requires formation of a government.
Is Mikati a consensus candidate capable of easing deadlock? Or, as his critics proclaim, is he just an extension of the blinded and inept political elite?
Optimism toward Mikati lies in his experience. He previously served as caretaker prime minister in 2005 after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri’s father, as well as prime minister in 2011 and from 2013 to 2014. He has also served in three different cabinets throughout his political career.
On Monday, Mikati received 72 votes out of 118 in parliament to assume the position. He was nominated by Hezbollah and endorsed by Hariri, garnering support from many groups in the country.
“Today, with signs that hint at the possibility of forming a government… we named Mikati to give an extra boost to facilitate forming a government,” the leader of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, told reporters.
However, Mikati was not supported by all parliamentary factions. Importantly, he faced opposition from the two major Christian political parties, including the Free Patriotic Movement, President Michel Aoun’s party.
A positive relationship with the Christians, especially with Aoun, could make or break a new government. Hariri failed his mandate to form a government after a struggle with Aoun over cabinet positions that eventually reached a deadlock. To succeed, Mikati will need to gain the favor of Aoun, or at least convince him to put aside misgivings to move the country forward.
Mikati’s ascension to power was met by skepticism by opponents. Critics say he is part of the incompetent political class. In late 2019, Lebanese citizens brought charges against him for illicit profiteering on state-subsidized housing loans, an allegation he denied. However, on Monday evening, his house was surrounded by protesters accusing him of corruption.
The future of Lebanon remains uncertain, especially with Mikati at the helm. For him to be successful, he must overcome significant barriers both politically and economically and bring together a deeply fractured and hurting country. He must also prove critics wrong, showing that his political experience will serve the people instead of further entrenching inefficiencies and corruption.
Mikati’s challenges are clear, but he must stand apart from other politicians to usher in a new future for the sake of the Lebanese people.