Despite the predictions of most political analysts, the appointment of a new Lebanese prime minister took very little time. Following the fall of Saad Hariri’s coalition government two weeks ago, a new prime minister was appointed yesterday.
Competition for the position was hardly fierce. Under the Lebanese constitution, the prime minister must be a Sunni. Saad Hariri, the former PM, is considered by many to be the leader of that community. So finding a candidate who would accept to side with the opposition – formed of Hezbollah’s Shi’as and Aoun’s Christian Maronites – and go against Hariri was not easy.
At first, the pro-Syrian Omar Karami was advanced by Hezbollah, but he declined the job. It was left to two other MPs, the business tycoons Mohamad Safadi and Najib Mikati. The prize went to the latter with 68 of the 128 Lebanese MP votes.
His appointment triggered protests from pro-Hariri supporters across the country. They consider Hariri to be the victim of a political coup, and believe the Sunnis are losing out in the latest political manoeuvres orchestrated by their foes, who have managed for the first time to divide Sunnis and gain enough Christian and Druze votes in parliament to impose their candidate. In Tripoli, posters of Mikati were torn down and burnt.
Yet despite the ill feelings of critics – who like to mention Mikati’s friendship with Syria’s president – the new prime minister is not Satan.
Since his appointment, he has presented himself as a conciliatory figure. “I am not at all related to Hezbollah by any means,” he told the BBC. “I am a moderate politician. I am always at equal distance from everybody.”
A graduate of Harvard and INSEAD, Mikati, like Saad Hariri’s father Rafik is a self-made man. Along with his brother, he is on the Fortune 500 list (his net worth is estimated at $2.5bn/€1.8bn) thanks in great part to his telecom company, which he sold a few years ago to the South African giant MTN. He also owns a small Swiss airline (Baboo) and the fashion brand Façonnable – hardly the stuff of a political extremist.
His conciliatory tone and call for dialogue makes him a reassuring choice in the current predicament. Already in 2005, he had helped Lebanon extirpate itself from a political crisis and laid the groundwork for national elections. This time around, he will have to deal with the explosive Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri, and to show he can convince Hariri and his bloc to join a coalition government. Without them, his cabinet will have a hard time claiming a long-lasting legitimacy. Let’s hope he can apply some of his business acumen to the difficult deals that lie ahead.