Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati gestures during a news conference at the government palace in Beirut in a file photo. Image Credit: REUTERS

Beirut: Late June, fifty-four MPs gave their vote to incumbent Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, mandating him to form a new government.

Whether or not he succeeds is yet to be seen, however, depending on how and if he manages to accommodate various political parties and parliamentary blocs voted into the chamber of deputies last May.

His predecessor Saad Hariri had famously tried and failed to form a government last year, but was forced to step down by a set of impossible conditions set forth by the Free Patriotic Movement of Gibran Bassil and President Michel Aoun.

Many of those conditions are still on the table, shedding serious doubt on how successful, or quick, Mikati will be in forming his fourth government.

Permanent claims to finance ministry

Prime on the list of those who need to be rewarded will be the twin Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal. They both pushed fully for Mikati comeback, making sure that his rival Nawaf Salam, a judge at the International Court of Justice, never makes it to the Grand Serail. The two Shiite parties hold five out of 24 seats in the outgoing Mikati government (3 for Amal and 2 for Hezbollah).

Hezbollah wants to keep that share but is not committed to any specific portfolio, having tried and failed to make claim to the Ministry of Health, which it controlled during apogee of the COVID-19 outbreak, two years ago.

Instead, they were accommodated with the portfolios of culture and public works. Amal is far more stubborn, insisting on the strategic Ministry of Finance, which has been in its hands for a solid ten years. Previous attempts at rotating the ministry among different sects and political parties failed, although that was the crux of President Emmanuel Macron’s 2020 initiative for Lebanon.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has since made permanent claim to the finance ministry, stressing that if not in the hands of one of his proteges, then he will turn his back on the government.

COMBO Gibran Bassil -Suleiman Frangieh -Samir Geagea-1652353139067
From left: Gibran Bassil, Sulaiman Frangieh and Samir Geaegea.

The Gibran Bassil factor

Mikati’s real problem is Gibran Bassil and the FPM. Although their parliamentary share was slashed from 29 to 17 last May, they are still a major Christian bloc that needs to be accommodated and properly represented. The FPM has made it clear that it would only support a fourth Mikati government if he pledges to back Bassil’s presidential ambition. Its an open secret in Lebanon that Bassil plans to run for president this year, when his aging father-in-law’s term comes to an end.

To date, the prime minister-designate has refused to make such a commitment, given Bassil’s diminishing popularity among Lebanese Christians, and US sanctions slapped upon him by the Trump Administration in 2020. Additionally, Hezbollah seems opposed to a Bassil presidency, preferring that the country’s top job goes to their other ally, Sulaiman Frangieh of the Marada Movement.

Only the FPM supports Bassil for president, along with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Armenian Tashnag Party. The Amal Movement doesn’t want him president, and nor do heavyweights like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the Phalange Party of the Gemayel family, or the Lebanese Forces (LF) of Samir Geaegea. Also opposing him are 13 independent MPs, billed as anti-establishment change-makers, who entered parliament for the first time in May.

Constitutional challenge

We have a constitutional challenge facing Mikati, and Lebanon. If no cabinet is formed and approved by parliament between now and October, then Mikati would remain in the capacity of prime minister-designate, meaning he cannot hold presidential elections in three months.

For a president to be sworn-in, he needs a full-fledge cabinet, approved by the chamber of deputies. If no cabinet is agreed upon, then Aoun can extend his term at the presidency, until a government is formed. That can give him few additional weeks or possibly, months at Baabda Palace. This would be a doomsday scenario for Lebanon, but music to the ears of the Aounists. They would be telling Mikati — and everybody else — that its either Bassil for president, or an indefinite extension of Aoun’s term. They can keep obstructing cabinet formation for the next three months, making sure that no government is formed by 31 October 2022.

Leading the camp trying to foil Bassil’s plans to extend Aoun’s mandate is the Amal Movement. Speaker Berri has put forth a formula, which although unconstitutional, is currently making the rounds in Lebanese political circles. Berri is saying that if election day comes and no cabinet is formed, then Mikati’s current caretaker government will assume duties of a full-fledge cabinet of ministers, for simply, lack of alternative. This means that it can run state affairs and assume duties of the president, forcing Aoun to relinquish power in October, and Bassil to abandon his claim to the presidency.

This suggestion will have a hard time passing with the Christian street, which cannot imagine that presidential powers are assumed—even if temporarily—by a Sunni prime minister. The presidency is the last vestige of power for Lebanese Maronite Christians—a post that they have hung on to, against all odds, since 1943.

This puts them before two scenarios, both equally appalling. One is to surrender the post to Mikati, albeit temporarily, in order to break Bassil’s presidential ambition. Another is to accept Bassil, despite his faults, in order to keep the presidency in Christian hands.