The Daily Star (BEIRUT): Public protests, including the blocking of roads with burning tires, erupted across Lebanon Monday hours after former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the Hezbollah-backed candidate for the premiership, was assured of becoming prime minister-designate.
Mikati’s chances of becoming prime minister soared after Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt backed him with seven of his 11 MPs, giving him the parliamentary majority to attempt to form a new government. Supporters of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement took to the streets in the northern city of Tripoli, the Bekaa region in the east, the southern city of Sidon and some Beirut neighborhoods in a show of support for Hariri and a denunciation Mikati’s nomination by Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 coalition.
In a further escalation of the protests, MP Mohammed Kabbara of Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc called for “a day of rage” in Lebanon Tuesday to condemn what he called Hezbollah’s “intervention in the affairs of the Sunnis.” The protests erupted as President Michel Sleiman was convening with lawmakers to poll them on their choices for a prime minister as part of two-day mandatory consultations on naming a new premier following the collapse of Hariri’s Cabinet. The outcome of the first day of consultations showed that 58 lawmakers backed Mikati for prime minister against 49 votes for Hariri. Mikati is the March 8 coalition’s candidate for the prime minister’s post against Hariri, who has vowed to seek a new term, challenging pressure by the coalition to try to oust him from power. Speaking to reporters after meeting Sleiman at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Jumblatt said he and six members of his bloc had selected Mikati for prime minister.
The March 8 coalition has 57 seats in the 128-member Parliament. Mikati belongs to a four-member independent parliamentary bloc for the northern city of Tripoli. With the addition of his own vote, Mikati has sufficient numbers to ensure him the parliamentary majority of 65 votes to head a new government. “It’s Mikati for sure,” Jumblatt told AFP as consultations began. Jumblatt last week allied with Hezbollah, boosting the March 8 coalition in the battle for the post. Hariri’s national unity Cabinet was brought down on Jan. 12 after ministers from Hezbollah and its allies in the March 8 coalition resigned in a long-running dispute over the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The STL is probing the 2005 killing of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah and its allies have for months been pressing Hariri to disavow the STL, which they dismiss as an “American-Israeli tool” designed to stir up sectarian strife in Lebanon.
After meeting with Sleiman, Mikati, a 55-year-old telecoms tycoon and Tripoli lawmaker with close ties to Syria, said that should he be appointed as prime minister, he would act as a consensual candidate representing all parties. He offered to cooperate with all parties, including Hariri, to save Lebanon from its current political crisis. “If I am asked to form the government, I will extend my hand to everyone to serve Lebanon’s interest without excluding anyone or taking revenge against anyone,” Mikati told reporters in Baabda. “I tell Prime Minister Saad Hariri, let us all work together for the sake of Lebanon.”
Mikati said he supported “Lebanon’s unity, the Sunni sect, the prime minister’s seat and the achievements made by the national Resistance.” “I have also been keen on dialogue and [the idea] that any divisive issue can only be solved by dialogue. Therefore, I will seek to talk to everyone away from rhetoric,” he said.
Mikati recalled that when he served briefly as prime minister in 2005 following Rafik Hariri’s assassination, “everyone was a witness to my performance, moderate approach and my keenness on the best relations with everyone.” Mikati said he briefed Sleiman on the motivations behind his candidacy to the premiership.
“In this time of crisis and amid political polarization occurring on the ground, I deemed it necessary that there should be a plan to save the country.” However, Mikati’s olive branch was snubbed by Hariri, who said he would not participate in any government headed by a Hezbollah-backed candidate, raising the stakes in a deepening political crisis amid fears of street violence.
In a statement issued by his media office ahead of the parliamentary consultations, Hariri said there was no such thing as a consensual candidate. “Any talk about a consensual candidate is an attempt to throw dust in the eyes. There is no consensual candidate proposed in today’s parliamentary consultations,” the statement said. “There is a candidate named Prime Minister Hariri and another candidate nominated by the March 8 groups.
The choice in this respect is quite clear,” the statement said. “The Future Movement announces from now its rejection to participate in any government headed by the March 8 candidate.” Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc named him as their choice for prime minister during the consultations with Sleiman. Speaking on behalf of the bloc, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Hariri was named for the post “because he is the main representative of his environment, people and sect.” Hariri told reporters: “For up to seven months we have been calling for dialogue. This is our permanent belief. We are now in the phase of binding parliamentary consultations whose results will come tomorrow. We will then respond accordingly.” After meeting with Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri said the atmosphere of consultations was good. Later, Berri returned to meet Sleiman with his 13-member parliamentary bloc which named Mikati for prime minister.
Bloc member MP Anwar Khalil told reporters that the bloc called for the formation of “a national salvation government.” Free Patriotic Movement leader, MP Michel Aoun, said after meeting Sleiman with members of his parliamentary bloc that they had also nominated Mikati to form a new Cabinet. Deputy Speaker Farid Makari, who named Hariri for the post, said Hariri’s return to the premiership was essential “to prevent Lebanon’s drift to the black age.” He said Mikati was the candidate of Syria, Hezbollah and the March 8 coalition. Meanwhile, Iran’s acting Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi discussed with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus bilateral relations and regional and international developments. Their talks included “efforts to realize solutions for challenges faced by states in the region,” AFP reported.