Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his resignation Friday evening, thereby dissolving the current government.
Mikati must now present a written resignation to President Michel Sleiman; according to the constitution, his resignation announced from the Serail is still considered political, and therefore must take official status, and in this case, it is expected the president will asign him to continue as a caretaker Prime Minister until the formation of a new government.
Mikati had almost resigned twice before: first over the funding for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and again following the assassination of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last October.
This time he did not bluff. The primary reason cited for the resignation was the opposition within his own government to extend the term of Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi. “It is necessary for Major General Rifi to carry on with his duties in order to protect the Internal Security Forces institution,” Mikati said in a televised address to Lebanon last night.
Rifi, apart from being a prominent security personal, enjoys a strong popular base among Sunnis in Mikati’s home town Tripoli and further across the Lebanese Sunni landscape. He also has strong Saudi political support, and is a board member of the Naif Arab University for Security Sciences — run by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed ibn Naif ibn Abdul Aziz al-Saud. If Mikati had supported his March 8 allies decision not to extend Rifi’s term, in a political sense it would have been suicide, and perhaps in a business sense as well.
Whether Rifi was the real cause or merely the trigger, Lebanon has now lost a government that emerged two years ago out of a constitutional vacuum. Mikati headed a government led by March 8 that managed to form a majority thanks to Druze leader Walid Joumblat's political switch in 2011. For the last two years that government has kept close ties to the Syrian regime.
For Mikati, a recognizable Sunni leader, this closeness to Damascus has been politically damaging, with rivals in his home town of Tripoli touting him from day one as being a puppet of a Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis.
The reality was more nuanced. Mikati was keen to promote himself internationally and distance himself from Syria. He has also consistently challenged his political allies, with notable successes including reaching a deal on funding the STL. However, in recent months the pressures on the current government from Saudi and American ambassadors has been growing. The Americans have been keen on removing Hezbollah from government after Bulgaria accused the party of a bombing which killed seven Israelis last summer in the Black Sea city of Burgas.
The fall of this government will remove the only Arab state ally of the Syrian regime. At present Damascus will be loath to see a March 14 government emerge, backed by Saudi Arabia and the US.
The Saudis want a March 14 government that will be in full support of the Syrian opposition. As such all eyes are, again, on Joumblat — if he switches allegiances again, it will allow March 14 to to form the next government.
Speaking last night, Mikati said he hoped his resignation would be "an impetus for leaders to shoulder their responsibilities" — indeed, the responsibilities he has just shed.
Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut