Lebanon Opposition Says New Cabinet May Spark Confrontations

Lebanese opposition leaders said the new cabinet formed by billionaire Najib Mikati may exacerbate tensions between followers of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and Hezbollah and its allies who now dominate the government.

The cabinet is a “government of confrontation,” said Ahmed Fatfat, a member of Hariri’s Future Movement, which is now led by his son, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. “This is a government of one color dominated by Hezbollah” and its supporters, Fatfat told the Voice of Lebanon radio station, according to the official National News Agency.

Mikati announced the cabinet yesterday following five months of negotiations over portfolios. The previous government, led by Saad Hariri, fell in January amid a dispute with the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement over the United Nations inquiry into the assassination in 2005 of his father. The cabinet has to win a vote of confidence from parliament.

“The new cabinet is not coming to make problems -- it’s not in its interest to do so,” Ibrahim Bayram, a columnist for An-Nahar newspaper, said in a telephone interview. “They want to prove that they can govern and they don’t want to make mistakes that will make it easy for the other side to wrest control back from them.”

Hezbollah Ties

Saad Hariri and his pro-Western Future Movement have said they were betrayed in the way Mikati came to power and won’t take part in an administration headed by anyone backed by Hezbollah and its allies. The Shiite movement, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., is backed by Syria and Iran.

In the U.S., House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, called for cutting all U.S. aid to Lebanon’s new government “as long as any violent extremist group designated by the U.S. as foreign terrorist organizations participates in it,” Agence-France Presse reported.

Some analysts say the rise of Hezbollah and its allies gives a boost to Syria, which has come under heavy Western criticism for violently crushing an uprising that began in March and has led to the death of 1,289 civilians and 322 military service members, according to the Syrian Observatory.

“This is a cabinet that will choose to side with Syria against any possible sanctions,” Hazem al-Amin, a columnist at Al-Hayat newspaper, said in a telephone interview from Beirut. “It will not side with the international community.”

‘Loose Coalition’

Mikati moved to calm fears about the new line-up, saying in an interview with AFP that the “fact that Hezbollah and its allies have 18 seats in the 30-member cabinet does not mean that the country will join the radical camp in terms of its relations with the international community.”

He said that 12 of the ministers had been appointed by himself, President Michel Suleiman and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, ensuring Hezbollah and its allies could not make decisions unilaterally, AFP reported.

“It’s a loose coalition and it’s not homogenous which means it won’t be a very effective or unified cabinet,” Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Beirut, said in a telephone interview.

One of the government’s main tasks will be to reach consensus on the Hariri tribunal. An indictment filed in January by the UN prosecutor is being reviewed by a court in the Netherlands. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said he expects it to indict some of his members. Both Hezbollah and Syria have denied any involvement in Hariri’s death.

Mikati’s Agenda

In a Jan. 27 interview, Mikati said he has “a friendship with Hezbollah and I also have contacts outside of Lebanon, but it doesn’t mean I follow anyone’s agenda.”

“My own agenda is going to be followed and that agenda is to maintain very good relations with the international community, and Lebanon has to fulfill its commitments,” he said.

Salem said Mikati has indicated on several occasions that he was “trying to go the middle line” when it comes to the tribunal.

“The cabinet will not positively cooperate with the tribunal, but at the same time it doesn’t seek a confrontation,” said Salem. “This is not a government designed to escalate and confront.”

Hariri was killed along with 22 others by a roadside bomb in Beirut in 2005. The country has since witnessed at least seven political assassinations, a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and civil unrest three years ago in which about 80 people died.

Mikati was confirmed as premier by Suleiman after winning the backing of lawmakers in January. Hezbollah brought down Hariri’s government on Jan. 12 as it sought to halt the UN investigation. It alleges the tribunal was instigated by the U.S. and Israel to target the group.

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Manama, Bahrain at dabunasr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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