x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mikati's resignation throws Lebanon into deeper crisis

The PM's surprise resignation drives the country into uncertainty at a crucial time and threatens to leave a void in the state's highest ranks amid sporadic violence inflamed by the civil war in Syria.

The resignation of Nijab Mikati, centre, as prime minister may be an attempt to boost his credentials among his fellow Sunnis ahead of elections. Hussein Malla / AP Photo
The resignation of Nijab Mikati, centre, as prime minister may be an attempt to boost his credentials among his fellow Sunnis ahead of elections. Hussein Malla / AP Photo

BEIRUT // Lebanese President Michel Suleiman formally accepted yesterday the resignation of the prime minister, who stepped down blaming government infighting during a time of rising sectarian tensions.

Najib Mikati submitted his written resignation to the president after announcing he was stepping down the day before, taking the nation by surprise. Mr Suleiman asked that his government assume a caretaking role while a new government is being formed.

Mr Mikati's unexpected resignation throws the country into uncertainty at a crucial time and threatens to leave a void in the state's highest ranks amid sporadic violence inflamed by the civil war in Syria.

It opens the way for what is expected to be prolonged political jockeying as parliamentary blocs try to build a majority coalition to choose a new prime minister.

"I hope that this resignation will provide an opening in the existing deadlock and pave the way for a (political) solution," he said, following his meeting with Mr Suleiman yesterday.

Mr Mikati has been prime minister since June 2011, heading a government dominated by the Shiite militant group Hizbollah and its allies, many of whom have a close relationship with Syria.

Their main rivals are a western-backed coalition headed by the former prime minister Saad Al Hariri, son of Rafiq Hariri, who also served as prime minister and was killed in a truck bombing in 2005.

A Harvard-educated billionaire, Mr Mikati was chosen to lead the government after Hizbollah forced the collapse of Lebanon's previous, pro-Western government over fears a UN-backed tribunal investigating the killing of the elder Hariri would indict Hizbollah members.

But Mr Mikati's relations with Hizbollah have never been smooth. He has rejected the notion that he serves Hizbollah or that his government will act as an Iranian proxy. Hizbollah accuses him of loyalty to the rival camp.

He stepped down Friday to protest the parliament's inability to agree on a law to govern elections set for later this year, as well as the refusal by Hizbollah and its allies in the cabinet to extend the tenure of the country's police chief, Maj Gen Ashraf Rifi, who at 58 is about to hit the mandatory retirement age for his rank.

Maj Gen Rifi, like Mr Mikati, is a Sunni Muslim who is considered a foe by Hizbollah.

In his speech Friday, Mr Mikati said that if Maj Gen Rifi is not allowed to stay on, his departure would send the police department into "a vacuum."

Underpinning the political crisis are Lebanon's hugely sectarian politics and the fact that the country's two largest political blocs support opposite sides in Syria's civil war. Lebanon and Syria share a complex network of political and sectarian ties, and many fear that violence in Syria will spread to Lebanon.

There were signs of rising tensions before the resignation.

Gunmen who support and oppose Syrian President Bashar Al Assad clashed Friday in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, leaving six people dead and more than 20 wounded, according to the state-run National News Agency.

Clashes between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab Tabbaneh, which supports Syria's rebels, and the adjacent Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, which supports Mr Assad, have broken out repeatedly in recent months. Mr Assad is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot sect.

Mr Mikati's resignation may be an attempt to boost his credentials among his fellow Sunnis ahead of the upcoming election and amid the violence in Tripoli, his hometown.

Some Lebanese media have speculated that his decision to step down was based on "insinuations" from the US and its allies to clear the way for an anti-Hizbollah majority, or at least a neutral government. Mr Mikati in his speech denied that he had been pressured by foreign powers, insisting that it was a "personal choice without any intervention from anyone."