The confirmation of Najib Mikati as Lebanon's third prime minister-designate in a year was no surprise in his homeland. He had been touted as a replacement for predecessor Saad Hariri after he declared his intention to step down if his latest cabinet line-up was, once again, ritually rejected by president Michel Aoun, who has stalled government formation for nine months.
By abstaining from the parliamentary vote on Mikati’s appointment, Aoun’s Maronite Christian party indicated he might well continue to block the independent government of experts demanded by international donors as the condition for providing funds to rescue the country from collapse.
As Aoun’s party was joined by a second key Maronite faction, he could justify such action by claiming Mikati does not have the backing of the Christians. Aoun insists a premier must be confirmed by all the main sects. He previously used this claim against Hariri.
Nevertheless, Mikati (65) may be able to stand up to Aoun. Mikati was endorsed by the Shia Amal and Hizbullah movements, the main Druze party, Hariri's Sunni party, smaller factions and independents, giving him a healthy majority of 72 in the 128-member chamber of deputies.
Paradoxically, Mikati's prospects may also be strengthened by Lebanon's accelerating decline. Beirut has no time to waste.
Lebanon’s currency has lost 90 per cent of its value since 2019, unemployment is rising, 55 per cent of Lebanese live below the poverty line and food prices are soaring. Long lines of cars form at petrol pumps, essential medicines are unavailable, there are electricity cuts due to the lack of hard currency for fuel, and hospitals can no longer function while Covid cases mount.
The appointment of Mikati, Lebanon’s richest man with a fortune of $2.5 billion, was greeted with howls of protest in his hometown, the northern port of Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city and the hub of the 2019 uprising.
Although he has denied charges of illicit enrichment from a fund providing housing for low-income families, he is seen by many as a stalwart of the rejected political elite and a beneficiary of the sectarian system of governance most Lebanese seek to overthrow.
For the present, he has the support of France and the US, which have urged Lebanon's politicians to permit him to form an apolitical government that can enact reforms, tackle mismanagement and corruption, and secure $21 billion in international financial aid to rescue the broken economy.
Mikati may try to achieve some movement ahead of the French-sponsored conference on Lebanon on August 4th, the first anniversary of the blast that devastated Beirut port and nearby neighbourhoods and deepened the economic and political crises which have swamped formerly prosperous, quasi-democratic, carefree Lebanon, once the playground of the Levant.