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    How much ownership does Mikati have over the new government?

    A common reaction yesterday to the new Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Nagib Mikati was astonishment/cynical disbelief that such an obvious line-up took over 5 months to work out: e.g. couldn’t they come up with a compromise candidate for the Interior Ministry all those months ago instead of wasting our time? The reasons for the delay are many: Lebanese political dysfunction, factions opportunistically jostling for as many seats as they can get before the 2013 parliamentary elections, confusion emanating from next door as the Assad regime has weakened considerably due to a popular uprising and increased regional isolation, and of course the plain reality that the new majority is not a harmonious entity and could fracture easily.

    Mikati is in an undeniably tricky situation, and the question is to what extent this is actually his government and to what extent he will be allowed by March 8 to rule, as a) Hezbollah will definitely try its best dominate Lebanon’s foreign relations, and b) the FPM will try to dominate the domestic agenda as much as it can.  Regional dynamics are constantly shifting at the moment, and as more Arab dictatorships collapse, a Lebanese government which is supported by a (crumbling) oppressive regime in the long run will find itself in a precarious situation, as it will be out of step with the aspirations of most Arab citizens, and crucially, out of step with the international community. Junblatt’s meeting with Assad a few days ago to facilitate the formation of the government and Assad’s quick congratulations yesterday, do not indicate that this government is going to be independent of the Assad regime. This could be a serious miscalculation as the Assad regime is losing friends quickly. Turkey has condemned its violent suppression of unarmed protestors, Qatar has given Assad the cold shoulder, and Saudi Arabia seems to be ambivalent. Allowing Palestinian youth to cross into the Golan Heights during the Nakba and Naksa commemorations (until that point the regime had assiduously guarded its Israel border) were quickly dismissed as attempts to distract attention away from the internal Syrian situation.

    For the moment, Mikati ‘centrist’ moderate stance gives this government cover as the international community adopts a wait-and-see approach. Whereas March 8 ministers have a hardline position against Western interference in the Middle East (apart from Hezbollah’s repeated repudiation of the United State’s role in the region, Michel Aoun has also adopted this line), Mikati has repeatedly promised that his government will not go against the international community and that it is not an anti-Western government. This of course brings up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and whether Mikati will find it easy as per Hezbollah’s conditions on supporting his premiership to either ‘distance’ Lebanon from the STL, or cancel participation and funding all together.  The question is whether Mikati, and by extension President Suleiman, are willing to go against the international community in this matter.

    It’s tempting to view Mikati as a reasonable man who should be given the benefit of the doubt; after all, at least on TV, he compares very favourably with his predecessor. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to believe that no Faustian deal lies at the heart of this new government. After all, this is what Lebanese cabinet formation is all about, especially with elections around the corner.

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