By Karim Emile Bitar
Speaking to an American audience in 1969, amid tensions between Canada and the US, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, arguably one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable western statesmen, half-jokingly said: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Trudeau’s quote, a good allegory of the Lebanese-Syrian relationship, becomes ominous in today’s context. If Lebanon is bound to be affected by every Syrian twitch and grunt, one wonders how it can weather a full-fledged and unprecedented Syrian revolution that might end in sectarian strife or in regime change.
Fostering stability and helping Lebanon avoid the potential subverting impact of the Syrian revolution is but one of the Herculean tasks the Mikati government will have to confront, alongside the upcoming indictment of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is bound to reinforce communal tensions and restart fierce polemics.
While these two existential threats are looming, the Mikati government will have to start dealing with the country’s devastating socio-economic woes, at a time when analysts are considerably lowering the forecasts for economic growth (the International Monetary Fund is predicting feeble 2.5 percent growth for 2011 while the Economist Intelligence Unit’s estimate is only 1.3 percent, significantly less than Lebanon’s 2009 and 2010 figures).
The new government will also have to conduct a series of delicate structural reforms, including the overhaul of the Lebanese telecom industry and the restructuring of the National Social Security Fund. It must rapidly generate minimum confidence as to encourage tourism and foreign investments, which have taken a bad turn. Finally, it should devise a modern electoral law for the 2013 legislative elections.
Does the government have the political wherewithal to meet these challenges? The answer is a resounding “no”. Too many storms to weather, too frail an embarkation — it’s a mission impossible if there ever was one.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati is unquestionably a man of many talents. His business acumen has been highly praised. His brand of centrism appeals to those Lebanese who are tired of the constant political tug-of-war. In 2005, Mikati came to power under a difficult, albeit more consensual, situation yet managed to conduct the transition in orderly fashion, gaining the respect of both sides of the aisle.
During the long months of political vacuum that preceded the formation of his government, Mikati remained eerily calm and optimistic despite being harshly attacked. He was accused of being a Hezbollah stooge, a traitor to his own Sunni community, a mere extension of the crumbling Syrian regime. He kept his cool during the sectarian incitement campaign, never hitting back. However, he did send clear messages stating that the presidency of the council of ministers was nobody’s “chasse gardee” and that he was as entitled as anyone else to hold the job.
Mikati appealed to the Lebanese people to give him the benefit of the doubt and to hold him accountable later, on the basis of his government’s accomplishments. The Maronite patriarch backed him, suggesting that Lebanese should deal positively with the new government. Mikati felt he could succeed, and he has a reasonable measure of western and Gulf support, otherwise he would not have accepted the job. But large segments of the Lebanese population will not forget what they consider an original sin: the conditions under which this government was formed.
In any other country, parliamentarians switching sides to bring down the government would have been a perfectly legitimate part of the democratic game. In Lebanon’s explosive sectarian configuration, amid a raging debate on Hezbollah’s arsenal, the move was perceived as foul play.
The March 14 coalition, already at loggerheads with Mikati, blames his government for returning Lebanon to a bygone era and does not hide its willingness to bring down the new government. Mikati’s own allies might soon prove to be an even bigger problem. For the first time, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement holds the lion’s share of the cabinet and several major portfolios. Will the FPM be able to bring about the long-promised “change and reform”? Or will it hit a stone wall and be forced to engage in bitter polemics while raising its voice louder and louder?
As for Lebanon’s independents and civil society activists, they’re not pinning any hopes on the new government. They were shocked by the conspicuous absence of women, which they perceived as an expression of disdain. Women’s rights activists heard the message loud and clear. It was as if Lebanon’s entire political class was telling them: “We don’t care, we’re not even trying. Don’t bother us with silly issues; we have bigger fish to fry. Get on with the program or get lost.”
This government is one of the few post-Taif governments that is not a national unity government. Counter-intuitively, this is not necessarily a bad thing; rather than being consensus-builders, past national unity governments were promoters of paralysis, preventing accountability and the transfer of power. On the other hand, one could argue that, more than ever, the present circumstances beg for unity.
In Lebanon’s seven decades of so-called independence, it is difficult to recall a single instance when a government started with such low expectations and ratings. Lebanese governments usually enjoy a significant grace period. People are initially overenthusiastic and pin all their hopes on the new prime minister. It is only later that they grow skeptical and disenchanted. This was the case in 1992 when Rafik Hariri became prime minister for the first time amid sky-high expectations. It was also the case in 1998 when Hariri’s old nemesis, Selim El-Hoss, promised to restore integrity and accountability.
Ironically, the morose climate and the low expectations could help Najib Mikati. Savvy businessmen often argue that it is a smart strategy to under-promise and over-deliver. If Mikati can apply the maxim to Lebanese politics, it would certainly be a refreshing surprise.
Karim Emile Bitar is a fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, the editor of ENA Magazine and the author of “Regards sur la France”. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org