How the Lebanese prime minister lost everything
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati was full of hope when he formed his government on Sept. 10. The first hope was that he could reinvent himself, clean his record and re-emerge as the main Sunni leader following the resignation of Saad Hariri. He was banking on French support and the American tendency toward appeasement to obtain funding that could prevent the country’s economy from collapsing, as a result of which he could claim to be the savior of Lebanon. Unfortunately for him, he seems to be losing his bet.
The consensus seemed to be that Mikati would not have accepted the premiership if he had not been confident of receiving guarantees from abroad. Initially, the formation of a new government was stalled as it had been under Mikati’s predecessor, Hariri, who eventually resigned after months of failing to make progress in negotiations with President Michel Aoun. However, a call between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and French President Emmanuel Macron cleared the path and the new government was formed.
Despite the cosmetic changes and the very few genuine technocrats, behind which the political elite hid, the new government is nothing but a recreation of the old one. The main portfolios are still in the hands of the same old players.
The plan behind the Mikati-Aoun alliance was quite simple. Despite the fact that the two men have little chemistry, their political marriage of convenience was seen as a necessity: They both need to find a way to escape the lousy situation they are in. Mikati saw this as an opportunity to rehabilitate his reputation, which has been tarnished by scandals dating back to the 1990s, including accusations surrounding dubious telecom deals and the LibanPost deal. More recently there have been controversies relating to allegedly fraudulent dealings involving government-sponsored housing loans.
Mikati saw that the situation facing Lebanon was so bad that the only way out was for help to come from outside. He was also banking on the situation being so bad that the various parties in Lebanon would finally agree to terms they would not previously accept, such as an International Monetary Fund package, with its associated conditions for economic and political reforms. He thought he could control the ruling elite and halt the hemorrhaging of the country's assets.
For a start, there is no more public money left to steal. The government has defaulted on its loans and can no longer borrow. In addition, one of the IMF requirements is the removal of the pegging of the Lebanese pound to the dollar. Although the peg officially remains, it has effectively been removed because the blackmarket exchange rate is what now reflects the true value of the plummeting currency. The situation is so dire that any amount of money that can be funneled into the economy would make a difference, and Mikati was keen to leverage any improvement at all to boost his own popularity. He was also banking on the fact that while Hariri is no longer welcome in key Gulf states, formerly his main backer, Mikati could, with Macron’s help, secure some funds from friends in the Gulf by presenting himself as an alternative to Hariri as the new leader of the Lebanese Sunnis.
To set the stage for his plan, during his first official foreign trip as prime minister he visited France and told Macron that some of the required reforms were still unrealistic at the moment. His strategy was to make some cosmetic governmental changes, appease the corrupt elite, and secure some funding simply to give the appearance of improvement. Driven by overconfidence, Macron pushed for the formation of a new government even though it could deliver no more than the appearance of reforms.
That was enough, however, for the French president, who was himself in search of anything that might look like a foreign affairs achievement, to bolster his own upcoming re-election campaign. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian subsequently hailed the formation of the Mikati government as “an important step to reviving this country.”
At the same time, however, France was unwilling to provide any financial support funded by French taxpayers for what authorities knew, deep down, was a corrupt government with no likelihood of implementing real reforms. Macron instead tried to use his leverage and popularity with Gulf countries to get financial help from them but they rebuffed his request. The position of the Gulf states is similar to that of the EU; neither is willing to contribute unless they can see evidence of real, structural and sustainable reforms. This does not seem to be the case so far.
Then, out of the blue last week came the comments from Information Minister George Kordahi. A staunch supporter of Bashar Assad in Syria and the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah resistance axis, the TV presenter-turned-politician described the war in Yemen as “absurd and futile” and accused the Gulf states of slaughtering Yemenis. This raised eyebrows in the Gulf states, especially in light of the fact that the egocentric minister had earned his money and made his name working for a Saudi TV channel. His comments about Yemen and the Houthis were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan described them as a “symptom” that reflects the “reality” that Hezbollah still controls Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia ordered the Lebanese ambassador to leave the country, as did Bahrain and Kuwait, and the UAE recalled its ambassador from Beirut. Mikati, who was hoping to gain both credibility and cash in the Gulf, suddenly found himself more isolated than ever.
It is yet to be seen how Najib Mikati will take the setback: Will he go all in or will he fold and resign?
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Meanwhile, where the new Lebanese government had been counting on American appeasement, it has instead been confronted with accountability. Two contractors were recently sanctioned by Washington, as well as the former head of general security, a sitting MP with close links to Hezbollah. Suddenly, all efforts to build credibility were shattered. In response to the chaos, the prime minister asked Kordahi to resign. However, the minister, who is in the pockets of both Hezbollah and Assad, is more defiant than ever and refuses to apologize or step down.
The clash between Lebanon and the Gulf states is motivating growing numbers of Lebanese citizens to say that the present government does not represent them. Business communities in the region have been quick to condemn Kordahi’s comments and to distance themselves from his government. The trend is toward growing domestic, as well as international, distancing from the Mikati government.
The once-hopeful prime minister who was banking on boosting his credibility with the international community to secure the funds from which he could build a base from which to reinvent himself and the political elite now seems to be stuck. It is yet to be seen how he will take the setback: Will he go all in or will he fold and resign?
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.