Miqati's government and the Western wager
Born in turbulence, the survival of Lebanon's Miqati government is far from assured, writes Saleh Bakr Al-Tayyar*
It took Prime Minister Najib Miqati nearly five months of negotiations to form his 30-member cabinet, which includes members of Hizbullah, Amal, Walid Jumblatt supporters, and the Reform and Change Movement of Michel Aoun. Two ministers were chosen by President Michel Suleiman.
The 14 March Alliance of Saad Al-Hariri has been edged out of government after talks aiming to bring them into the coalition collapsed. The composition of the new cabinet suggests that divisions among Lebanon's adversaries have become unbridgeable. The current cabinet is widely seen as sympathetic to Iran and Syria, whereas the now opposition, led by the 14 March Alliance, is seen as pro-Western. This suggests that the coming phase will be acrimonious, making it hard for the cabinet to capitalise on the fact that it has the support of a parliamentary majority.
While it can blame the country's deteriorating conditions on the errors of the previous government, in power since 2005, the Miqati government will have to grapple with a wide range of problems ranging from corruption in government departments to the inadequacy of education and health services. Western officials will be keeping a close eye on the new government. Some already are proposing a set of policies, or let's say a roadmap, that they want the new government to adopt. The paramount Western demand is for the new government to cooperate with the special tribunal looking into the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri. Western officials are also waiting to see how close Miqati aligns his policies with those of Syria and Iran.
The new government is yet to make its first statement of policy, and observers are waiting to see if Miqati's pledge to represent the whole country, not just one section of the population, will hold true. So far, Miqati's critics have been calling his government a "government of Damascus" or even a "government of Hizbullah". And some members of the 14 March Alliance have threatened to go to the street to challenge the new government. Others suggest that the new government won't survive more than a few more months; for once the Syrian regime collapses, the Miqati government would find it hard to stay in power.
The only way for Miqati and his new cabinet to silence the opposition will be to take immediate measures to resolve the country's multi-faceted problems. Only tangible achievements can persuade the Lebanese that the cabinet is worthy of survival. So far, Miqati has been saying all the right things, pledging to work for the entire country and not for narrow sectarian or political interests. "This government is about everyone working together for the country," he said.
Lebanon could use a government that focuses on the work at hand. At present, the country is in deep social and economic crisis and has over $50 billion in debt. Its administration is weak and often corrupt, and its infrastructure, especially the water and electricity supply, is wobbly. Years of political contention have held back the country's economic progress. For example, offshore oil fields are still undeveloped. To complicate matters further, some crucial issues, including the weapons of the resistance, remain unresolved.
There is also the question of the Arab revolutions and how they will affect the future of the country. Claiming that the West is trying to divide up the Arab world, some analysts have predicted a worsening of sectarian tensions, whether Muslim- Christian or Sunni-Shia.
To sum up, the government of Najib Miqati was born in turbulent times, both internally and externally. Its success will depend on its ability to stay on good terms with the West while acting as a government of national unity.
* The writer is director of the Arab-European Studies Centre.