Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati promised Tuesday to form a new government to maintain national unity, offering to cooperate with all parties to confront major challenges facing the country, including the explosive issue of the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is probing the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri appealed to his supporters to stay calm following two days of nationwide public protests against Mikati’s nomination to the prime minister’s post. At least 51 people were injured in a “day of rage” across the country, the Lebanese Red Cross said.
“I affirmed to the president that cooperation will be complete between us to form a new government which the Lebanese want, a government to maintain the unity of their country and their sovereignty, achieve the solidarity of its people, protect the coexistence formula and respect the constitutional rules,” Mikati said in a statement minutes after he was appointed by President Michel Sleiman to form the new government following the collapse of Hariri’s Cabinet on Jan. 12.
Mikati said he would begin steps to form a government from Wednesday by making traditional calls on former prime ministers, including Hariri. He said he would start consultations with parliamentary blocs on the shape and size of the government Thursday.
“I have full hope that these consultations will lead to the birth of the new government soon. I am looking forward for a government that will face all the challenges and live up to the aspirations and hopes of the Lebanese,” he added.
Mikati was the March 8 coalition’s candidate for the prime minister’s post against Hariri. The outcome of Sleiman’s two-day binding consultations with lawmakers on their choices for prime minister showed 68 lawmakers backed Mikati against 60 for Hariri. Hariri said Monday he would not participate in any government formed by a March 8-backed candidate.
Hariri’s Cabinet was brought down following the resignations of ministers of Hezbollah and its March 8 allies in a long-running dispute over the STL’s indictment, which is widely expected to implicate some Hezbollah members in Hariri’s assassination, raising fears of sectarian violence.
Speaker Nabih Berri indicated that the Saudi-Syrian settlement, which collapsed earlier this month, was still alive.
Asked whether Mikati had won Saudi support for his candidacy to the premiership, Berri told The Daily Star: “The S.S. (Syrian-Saudi initiative) is not dependent on a single person.”
Billionaire Mikati, a telecoms tycoon with close ties with Syria, said “unconventional steps” were required to resolve the country’s months-long political crisis and restore the uniting roles of state institutions, particularly the Cabinet.
Mikati, a lawmaker for the northern city of Tripoli who served briefly as prime minister in 2005 following Rafik Hariri’s killing, said he extended his hand to all Lebanese leaders to cooperate to put an end to political divisions.
He urged his supporters and others in Tripoli, which was the scene of massive public protests against Mikati’s nomination, to stay calm and not to undermine security.
Asked how he would deal with the issue of the STL, which has sharply divided the Lebanese into two rival camps, Mikati said: “This is a divisive issue among the Lebanese that can be solved only through dialogue.”
In an address to the Lebanese, Hariri rejected riots that occurred in Tripoli and urged his supporters to stay calm.
“As I express my thanks and appreciation to every free citizen who committed himself to this path and decided to raise his voice, condemning the attempts of hegemony over our national decision and the decision of Tripoli in particular, I consider it my duty to announce my total rejection of all forms of riots and lawlessness which accompanied the popular movements and unfortunately tarnished these movements noble national goals,” he said.
“Anger cannot be expressed by cutting off roads, burning tires or infringing the freedom of others, regardless the motives,” Hariri added.
“Our goal, and your goal, is not to be in power or to return to the premiership. I said before, that the dignity of the nation and the citizens is more important to me than all positions in power,” Hariri said. “Our goal is always to protect the state from attempts of hegemony on it, and to protect our political path from the conspiracies against it, and to protect civil peace from those who try to tamper with our national unity.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is reconsidering how it bankrolls Lebanon after Hezbollah-backed Mikati won the prime minister’s post where the U.S. has spent millions promoting a pro-Western agenda. The administration has begun a broad review of political, economic and military assistance to Lebanon in light of the collapse of Hariri’s government, U.S. officials in Washington said. The Obama administration will probably cut or realign that aid if Hezbollah takes over key ministries under Mikati.
Earlier Tuesday, a senior U.S. official said Washington was watching the situation in Lebanon carefully, and monitoring any new developments.
“A Hezbollah-controlled government would clearly have an effect on our bilateral relationship with Lebanon. Any decision to denounce the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and end Lebanese support for it would be extremely problematic for the U.S.,” the official said.
“The make-up of Lebanon’s government is, as we’ve repeatedly said, a Lebanese decision, but this decision should not be reached through coercion, intimidation, threats of violence. Hezbollah, backed by Syria, engaged in all three to achieve its political goals,” he added.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said that Mikati’s appointment to form a new Cabinet provided “a real chance” for feuding Lebanese parties to close ranks and form a government of national salvation.
He rejected accusations by the March 14 camp that Mikati was Hezbollah’s candidate to the prime minister’s post and that his government would be controlled by the party.
Berri said it was too early to talk about the shape of the new government, but he expected it to be smaller than the current 30-member caretaker Cabinet.
He called for the formation of a national salvation government or a partnership government. He said he hoped Hariri would participate in such a government. “If Hariri does not want to participate, it’s his right to join the opposition. We hope it will be constructive opposition,” Berri told The Daily Star.
He said Mikati enjoys a wide representation within the Sunni community, noting that he won 57,000 Sunni votes in the 2009 parliamentary elections.