Lebanese lawmakers backed Najib Mikati, the billionaire businessman nominated as prime minister by Hezbollah and its allies, to form a government as supporters of rival parties took to the streets in protest.
Mikati had the backing of 68 lawmakers, a majority in the 128-seat assembly, to 55 for caretaker premier Saad Hariri as of midday in Beirut. President Michel Suleiman, who has been canvassing lawmakers for a second day, is due to invite the candidate with most support to form an administration.
Supporters of the pro-Western Hariri rallied in Beirut and other cities late yesterday and called for a “day of rage” today against what they described as a coup by Hezbollah. The army stepped up security measures. Mikati pledged to set up “a government that encompasses everyone” if he wins the nomination.
Hezbollah and its allies brought down Hariri’s coalition by resigning from the Cabinet on Jan. 12. The Shiite Muslim group is seeking to halt the United Nations inquiry into the killing of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s father, saying it was instigated by the U.S. to target Hezbollah. The dispute threatens a return to sectarian violence in a country that emerged from a 15-year civil war in 1990 and has since seen repeated outbreaks of conflict.
Credit default swaps on Lebanese debt rose to 359 basis points yesterday, the highest for 18 months, and have increased more than 60 basis points today. They were unchanged at 11:55 a.m. in Beirut, CMA prices showed.
The UN prosecutor investigating Hariri’s 2005 murder filed an indictment last week. The contents won’t be made public for several weeks while they are reviewed by the pre-trial judge.
Asked what his approach will be regarding the UN tribunal in a phone interview yesterday, Mikati, 55, said: “It’s a disputed issue in Lebanon and the coming government will deal this matter and all issues in a calm national dialogue.”
Lebanon’s power-sharing arrangement requires that the president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. The bloc led by Hariri, 40, defeated Hezbollah and its allies in the parliamentary election of June 2009.
Several hundred supporters of Hariri took to the streets in Beirut, the southern town of Sidon, Tripoli in the north and other parts of the country, burning tires and blocking roads, footage aired by local channels showed. Some gathered by the grave of Rafiq Hariri carrying placards that read: “Where is my vote?”
The protesters called the nomination of Mikati by Hezbollah and its allies a betrayal and a coup. In a televised press conference, Sunni lawmaker Mustafa Alloush, a key ally of Hariri, called for more demonstrations today to show “their refusal of Persian tutelage” over Lebanon, a reference to Hezbollah’s backers in Iran.
The Lebanese army said late yesterday it is stepping up deployment of troops at potential flashpoints, including Tripoli and the coastal highway that stretches from Naameh to Sidon. The U.S. Embassy advised Americans to be alert and vigilant regarding their security and avoid large gatherings.
The U.S. and Israel classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The Shiite group won popularity by helping drive out an occupying Israeli army in 2000 after almost two decades, and fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006.
“The larger the role played by Hezbollah in this government, the more problematic it is for the relationship between the United States and Lebanon,” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters in Washington.
Syria, Hezbollah’s other backer, was initially blamed for Hariri’s killing by many Lebanese, and withdrew its troops from the country following a wave of protests. Both Syria and Hezbollah have denied responsibility for the murder, though Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, says he expects the tribunal to indict members of his group.
The U.S. “should be realistic and pragmatic” about Hezbollah’s role in a new government, said Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “If you negotiate with North Korea and with the Taliban then you can certainly negotiate with Hezbollah and their allies.”
Mikati is worth $2.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He founded Investcom, which runs phone networks in emerging markets, with his brother, Taha, in 1982. MTN Group Ltd., Africa’s largest mobile-phone operator, bought the company in 2006 for $5.5 billion.
The two brothers run M1 Group, a holding company whose portfolio includes real estate investments in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, as well as the Geneva-based Baboo airline, French retailer Faconnable and Avante Petroleum, an exploration and production company.
Mikati, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, headed a three-month caretaker administration supported by Hezbollah before the parliamentary election in 2005.
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