Najeeb Mikati’s candidacy has reportedly won the backing of France and Qatar in addition to Syria. Image Credit: AP

While the entire world was looking elsewhere — at the massive demonstrations in Egypt — Lebanon's new Prime Minister Najib Mikati was busy at his office in Beirut, trying to come up with government that would end months of political tension.

Mikati is aiming at a cabinet of 24 ministers that will divide posts accordingly, five for the Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites, two for the Druze, three for Greek Orthodox, two for Catholics, and two for the Armenians. He hopes to present it to Parliament for a vote of confidence early this month.

What is certain now is that neither the Future Movement of ex-prime minister Sa'ad Hariri will join, and nor will Hezbollah. The same cannot be said for their Christian allies, however, the Phalange Party of ex-president Ameen Gemayel or the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun.

Having been kept out of government for too long, all throughout the 1990s, both are eager to make up for lost time and insist that no cabinet must pass without them being properly represented, as vanguards of the Christian voice in Lebanon. Gemayel, for example is demanding the Ministry of Education while Aoun wants the posts of telecommunications, justice, and is eying the ministry of interior.

President Michel Sulaiman is likely to name both the minister of interior and defence, and both are going to be independents, unaffiliated with either the March 8 or March 14 alliances. While Hezbollah makes it clear that it will not join, it cannot force its allies into not joining the Mikati cabinet.

As things stand today, the Amal movement will be getting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and perhaps Energy, while Aoun's team will get the Ministries of Telecommunications and Justice, although it has its eyes set on the portfolio of interior.

Sunni representation

Among Hezbollah friends earmarked to join the cabinet are ex-ministers Karam Karami, Michel Samaha, and Sulaiman Franjiyeh.

The March 14 alliance is saying however, that Mikati's real problem is neither the Maronites nor Shiites, but rather who will represent Lebanese Sunnis if Hariri and his team are absent? Mikati's allies are reminding that Lebanon is dotted with prominent political families from the Sunni community.

These families, it must be noted, saw Rafik Hariri's 2005 murder as a blessing in disguise because it gave them a chance to re-surface in politics. Among the names earmarked for government, for example, are Laila Al Solh and Tammam Salam, the daughter and son of two of Lebanon's founding fathers, Riad Al Solh and Saeb Salam — legends of the Lebanese Sunni community.

In addition to appeasing the Sunni street, Solh, for example, is close to Saudi Arabia given that her sister is married to Prince Talal, the brother of King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. She is the aunt of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.

Mikati is also toying with the idea of appointing Mohammad Al Safadi, an MP from Tripoli, and Faisal Karami, the son of ex-prime Minister Omar Karami, as cabinet ministers.

It must be noted that until the very last moment, Omar Karami was March 8's choice for the premiership, rather than Mikati. Although significantly older (Karami is 77 while Mikati is 55) many in the March 8 team believed — and still do — that he would have been better for the job.

Karami factor

Karami after all is easier to control, whereas Mikati is more anti-Hariri than he is pro-Hezbollah. Additionally they believe that Karami needs to be compensated for having been humiliated at the premiership at ejected from office by the Hariri team in 2005, shortly after the Hariri murder.

Also, given that Karami is the brother of a slain prime minister (Rashid Karami) he can easily and sensibly take a U-turn on the Special Tribunal in Lebanon, arguing that stability for Lebanon is more important than justice.

Appointing Karami would have been very provocative for March 14 and many countries would have refused to deal with him, like France, the US, and perhaps, even Saudi Arabia. The man, after all, is pro-Hezbollah to the bone and lacks the financial clout of Mikati, although he is more experienced in politics and hails from a heavyweight family that has worked in Lebanese politics for a 100 years.

Mikati, after all, would probably never have made it to the post if there were no silent Saudi approval. He now has to walk the tight rope between all camps, maintaining Saudi interests in Lebanon while simultaneously, taking a much needed U-turn on the STL, while pledging in his cabinet formation statement to uphold the arms of Hezbollah.

Success is still not fully guaranteed, given that he has to hammer out differences between different players within Lebanon. If he fails, members of March 8 are saying, then Omar Karami is second-in-line for the premiership — followed by Al Safadi.

The bottom line, as far as Hezbollah is concerned, that it will be anybody but Hariri. 

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward magazine in Syria.