06/17/2011, 00.00
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An anachronistic government in the hands of Hizbollah and Syria

by Fady Noun
The new cabinet headed by Nagib Mikati embodies Shia and Syrian influence. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Rafik Hariri’s murder is the issue that might lead to confrontation with the West.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Anachronistic is perhaps the best way to describe Lebanon’s new government under Nagib Mikati. A rhetorical discourse more in line with what went on before the Arab spring highlighting Syrian and Iranian influence emerges from some speeches, like those of Foreign Minister Ali Kanso.

The new Lebanese government has been coolly received by the country’s opposition and the international community. Inside the country, the condemnation is without any nuance.

For many, it is the government of Syria and Hizbollah, which will lead Lebanon to a confrontation with the West.

At the international level, Washington has already expressed its disappointment. Paris has not reacted; nor has the Arab world.

Despite Mr Mikati’s attempt to be reassuring, the only countries to have sent congratulations to the presidential palace are Syria, Iran and Spain. On the day the decree officially announcing the new cabinet was published, the new prime minister left on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The government has two components. One is radical and led by Hizbollah. The other is centrist and is led by the president, the prime minister and Walid Jumblatt, head of the Socialist Party. The latter is the weaker of the two but has a major card up its sleeves: 11 ministers that can act as a block. This should reassure Saudi Arabia.

However, this block is contingent, since the Interior minister who could tip the scale, is a newcomer to politics.

The cabinet has good members, but it unclear whether it can maintain its promises given the heavy baggage it carries, which can stifle change.

Take for example the new Interior Minister, Marwan Charbel, who wants a new election law before the next election in 2013.
Drafting a new law is easier said than done. It will be a challenge to do anything over the next two years since Hizbollah has not fully committed to accepting changes in government, as shown by what happened to the Doha accord. At the time, when the Shia party lost the support of the cabinet, it had all Shia ministers resign, and demanded a government of national unity.

Hence, many are afraid that any new election law would be drafted in such a way to ensure the current ruling coalition a permanent majority or that anti-democratic behaviour would force the country to accept another fait accompli.

Conscious of this disadvantage, Hizbollah said, through one of his lawmakers, that it would respect the principle of democratic change.

However, despite the reassuring words from Mr Mikati and his ministers, any judgement of the new government will have to wait to see whether words are actually turned into deeds.

Lebanon’s president has also announced an informal meeting of the National Dialogue Conference, which brings together representatives of all political parties to discuss Lebanon’s national defence vis-à-vis Israel.

Hizbollah’s weapons will also have to be discussed. It is a divisive issue for the Lebanese. Not all armaments are under the control of the Lebanese military, as it should be; some are under the control of a militia, and nothing indicates that Hizbollah is prepared to give an inch in the matter.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is another issue that divides the Lebanese. France, the United States and the United Nations are concerned that the new government will stop cooperating with the STL, which has been charged with investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“This will be the first test. We shall know whether Lebanon will enter into a confrontation with the international community or not,” Khatta Abou Diab, professor of international relations at Université Paris-Sud, was quoted as saying in France Presse.

“The cabinet will not positively cooperate with the tribunal,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.

With a reputation as an independent, free of Hizbollah’s pressures, the new prime minister’s challenge will be to avoid conflict over this issue.

Mikati will try to find some space to manoeuvre, Salem said, but given Hizbollah’s growing weight and its arsenal, analysts doubt the new prime minister will openly challenge the Shia party.

If some expectations are fulfilled, and the STL’s indictments are announced in the next weeks, the crisis will explode sooner than the Mikati government might have hoped for.
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