Lebanon News

Mikati says government to serve all

BEIRUT: Najib Mikati began his tenure as Lebanon’s prime minister at the Grand Serail Thursday with a promise to give priority to tackling the people’s socio-economic woes, stressing that his Cabinet members would work as one team to serve all Lebanese.

Mikati arrived at the Grand Serail at 9:30 a.m. for the first time as prime minister since 2005. Received by Cabinet Secretary General Suhail Bouji and Serail staff, he reviewed an honor guard before heading to the prime minister’s office.

Mikati served as prime minister for three months in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose killing threw the country into political turmoil and led to the collapse of the government of then-Prime Minister Omar Karami. Mikati’s technocrat Cabinet oversaw parliamentary polls which resulted in a sweeping victory for the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader.

In an interview with LBCI television Thursday night, Mikati denied March 14 parties’ charges that Syria had exerted pressure to hasten the formation of his Cabinet. He said there had been no interference by any party in the Cabinet’s formation.

“Why was the Cabinet’s formation tied to any external matter? This [Cabinet’s formation] was a purely Lebanese issue and [the Cabinet] was made in Lebanon,” Mikati said. He added that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s phone call to congratulate President Michel Sleiman shortly after the Cabinet lineup was announced was normal between the presidents of neighboring countries.

“Where are the Syrian or non-Syrian touches in the formation?” he asked. Mikati swore to God that he did not receive any contact from Syrian officials on the eve of Cabinet’s formation.

“I formed the Cabinet by myself at 11 p.m. Sunday and I only told the closest people about it. I went to the president [Monday] telling him that I will not leave the [Presidential] Palace unless the Cabinet is formed,” he said.

Addressing the Cabinet’s first session Wednesday, President Michel Sleiman said the new Cabinet was “100 percent Lebanese,” indirectly rejecting March 14 claims that the government had been formed under Syrian pressure.

In the interview with LBCI, Mikati also scoffed at the March 14 parties’ accusations that his Cabinet was dominated by Syria and Hezbollah. “I leave it to the Lebanese people to judge whether this government is a Syrian or Iranian [dominated] government. Is this a government of Hezbollah which has two ministers, and it and its allies have 18 ministers [out of 30]?” Mikati asked. “This government has independent and centrist ministers … This government will only succumb to the Lebanese people. It is in Lebanon’s interests to be on good relations with all brotherly and friendly states and to respect U.N. resolutions.”Asked what his government would do if the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s indictment implicated Hezbollah members in Hariri’s assassination, Mikati said the Cabinet would meet to take an appropriate decision. He reiterated his government’s commitment to civil peace and international obligations.

Mikati said that in the first Cabinet meeting after winning Parliament’s vote of confidence, he would demand the renewal of Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh’s mandate, which expires at the end of July. Both the March 8 and March 14 camps support a new six-year term for Salameh.

Earlier Thursday, Mikati chaired a meeting of a ministerial committee tasked with drafting a policy statement on the basis of which the government would seek Parliament’s vote of confidence. Headed by Mikati, the committee which includes 12 ministers, was set up during the Cabinet’s first meeting Wednesday.

During a meeting with the Serail staff, Mikati reiterated that the new Cabinet’s priority is to address people’s needs, stressing that Cabinet members would work hand-in-hand. “Our priority is to tackle the people’s urgent needs and affairs. We will work as one task team to serve all the Lebanese. We will work in this spirit with no malicious or vengeful acts,” Mikati said. He added that the government would work to translate its motto, “all for the country, all for work,” into deeds.

“There are big objectives and many challenges. We have to do our duty in order for the Lebanese to feel that the state exists. This matter constituted the biggest incentive for us to complete the government’s formation,” Mikati said.

He said he had felt before the Cabinet’s formation that there was a plan aimed at “undermining constitutional institutions by enhancing the sense that matters could go on without a government and effective constitutional institutions.”

The Cabinet’s formation has ended a political stalemate that has thrown the country into a power vacuum for five months.

During the meeting of the committee charged with drafting the policy statement, the ministers drew up the outlines of the document. In addition to addressing major social and economic issues that concern the public, the policy statement is expected to outline the government’s position on thorny issues such as Hezbollah’s arms and the STL, which is investigating the Hariri assassination.

A ministerial source said he expected the committee to finish the outlines of the policy statement soon. The committee has begun discussing social and economic issues and postponed until next week thorny and divisive issues, such as Hezbollah’s arms and the STL, the source said.

With regard to Hezbollah’s arms, the committee is expected to endorse the equation of “the people, the army and the resistance” adopted by the previous Cabinet, the source said. According to the source, the committee would add a clause in the policy statement saying: “Commitment to international resolutions in such a way that does not contradict with the principle of internal sovereignty.”

Hezbollah’s Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish, a committee member, said the policy statement will address U.N. resolutions. The committee will hold another meeting Tuesday.

Sources close to Sleiman expected that a draft policy statement would be finalized “within a maximum of one week,” adding that it would stipulate that Lebanon’s army, people and resistance have the right to liberate Lebanese territories occupied by Israel and uphold Lebanon’s commitments to U.N. resolutions, especially 1701, which ended Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon, and to the country’s protocol of cooperation with the STL.

Sleiman had said the Cabinet’s policy statement should be based on national principles, the Constitution and the Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon’s Civil War.

Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi said the policy statement would be concise and would touch on basic socio-economic issues. He stressed the need for the Lebanese to carry out “reforms and change.”

Asked whether the policy statement would change Lebanon’s commitments to international obligations, including the STL, Qortbawi said: “Let’s not jump the gun … Lebanon is a state that is committed to U.N. resolutions.”

Meanwhile, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea kept up his blistering campaign against the government, saying Mikati’s Cabinet would isolate Lebanon from the international community. “When governments were formed in Lebanon, statements of support, blessing, satisfaction and desire to help were issued immediately by the Arab and international communities. Except this time, the formation of a new government was met with complete Arab silence along with some skepticism, with the exception of Syria and Iran, which have emerged as the biggest winners from this formation. This is in addition to complete Western skepticism along with some strongly worded warnings,” he told supporters at his residence in Maarab.

He cast doubt on what the new government could achieve, when it has been disavowed since its birth by more than half of the Lebanese people and the majority of Arab and foreign states did not show readiness to cooperate with it. “Therefore, it is correct to call this government a government to isolate Lebanon from its Arab environment and from the international community,” Geagea said.

The Future bloc’s Ammar Houri, a Beirut MP, said he expected the Mikati government to be short-lived. “The government came to carry out a regional agenda and serve as a regional spearhead to involve Lebanon in struggles which we can dispense with,” Houri told the Voice of Lebanon radio station. “A real coup has taken place.” – With additional reporting by Antoine Ghattas Saab

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 17, 2011, on page 1.

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