Thirteen months after the resignation of former Prime Minister Hassan Diab – after the explosion in the port of Beirut that left more than 200 people dead – Lebanon finally has a new government.
The communications magnate Najib Mikati assumed his position as Prime Minister of the Arab nation on September 10 and presented a new cabinet at the Baabda Palace in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, together with President Michel Aoun and the head of Parliament, Nabih Berri .
The 65-year-old Sunni billionaire assumes the head of a Lebanese government for the third time (he served briefly as prime minister in 2005 and then between 2011 and 2014). At the same time he urges the political class to work together to get out of the deep crisis that Lebanon is going through.
“Everyone knows the situation in the country, from the oldest to the smallest,” Najib Mikati said in his speech after the announcement of the formation of his government.
“Children are deprived of infant milk, children wonder if they will go to school and want to emigrate. Parents have seen their income lose more than 80% of its value and they no longer know how to make ends meet. mothers, they can’t find medicine, “he added.
The Lebanese leader admitted that the situation is “difficult and exceptional”, but affirmed that it will not be difficult to get the country on track.
His new cabinet has 24 ministers divided “equally between Christians and Muslims”, but without gender equality: there is only one female minister.
Mikati told the BBC a few days ago that one of her priorities would be to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to obtain a financial rescue package.
From a very poor city to the top
With an estimated fortune of US $ 2.7 billion, Najib Mikati is the richest man in Lebanon and one of the wealthiest in the world.
Paradoxically, it comes from Tripoli, one of the poorest cities in the country.
Mikati earned an MBA from the American University of Beirut. He also attended programs at the French business school Insead and the Harvard University in United States.
During his studies, he founded the M1 Group company with his older brother, Taha Mikati. At first, they focused on the construction industry, but in 1982, in the midst of the Lebanese civil war, they saw an opportunity in the telecommunications market that was just beginning to flourish and founded Investcom.
The company quickly became a major mobile phone operator and spread all over the world.
Mikati’s political career began in 1998 when he was appointed Minister of Public Works and Transport.
And in 2000 he was elected for the first time as one of the five representatives of Tripoli in the Chamber of Deputies of the Lebanese Parliament.
A “moderate” figure
“Najib Mikati is primarily a very skilled businessman, who has already held the position during delicate and transitional periods,” sums up Karim Bitar, director of the department of political science at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
“His strong point is that he is someone who strives to maintain cordial relations with all forces of the political spectrum Lebanese. It also has good relations with Hezbollah, with the Syrian regime and with the Gulf (Persian) countries, Saudi Arabia and the United States, “he tells BBC Mundo.
In Lebanon, he is perceived as a moderate figure, but, according to Bitar, people do not forget that he is a shareholder of a large bank, which is why he is said to be a “man of the establishment“.
“That is why radical structural reforms should not be expected,” he adds.
For him, the fact that he returns to power today at the head of a government that represents the main political parties of the country is a disappointment for the people who supported the revolution of October 17, 2019, which they called for a radical political change.
The protests began that day following the announcement of a proposed $ 6 monthly tax on WhatsApp calls.
The plan was abandoned shortly thereafter, but the unrest escalated and protesters focused on broader issues such as poor economic management and poor quality of public services and the widespread corruption.
The “dramatic” situation in Lebanon
Najib Mikati himself has been involved in various corruption scandals.
The most recent was in 2019 when he was prosecuted for receiving, along with his brother and son, millions of dollars in subsidized home loans For the state. He denied the allegations.
Karim Bitar describes the current situation in his country as “dramatic”.
“The economic crisis that Lebanon is currently going through is the most serious in its history“, sentence.
The World Bank called it one of the three worst crises in the world in the middle of this year since the middle of the 19th century. That’s right. According to the organization’s estimates, Lebanese GDP per capita fell by 40% last year.
At the same time, the Lebanese pound, the local currency, has lost almost 90% of its value and, according to the UN, 55% of the more than four million Lebanese live for below the poverty line on less than US $ 3.84 a day.
“The Lebanese also suffer from a shortage of gasoline, medicines, basic food products and galloping inflation,” adds Bitar.
“And the worst thing is that there are really no prospects to get out of the crisis and the morale of the population is on the floor“.
“I feel the type of poverty, the type of hunger that they have”
The new prime minister told the BBC that despite his wealth, he can understand the impact of the current crisis on the daily lives of ordinary Lebanese.
“I have three children … outside of Lebanon. So I feel with the people. I feel the kind of poverty, the kind of hunger they have, the fear they have of the future. So this it’s not just a question of (having) money or not”.
Lebanon’s delicate sectarian power-sharing system had hampered repeated attempts to form a government following Hassan Diab’s resignation in August last year.
Lebanon has an unusual political system based on sectarian representation. The model allows sharing power between Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims.
It was slightly modified in 1989 with the “Taif Agreement”, which reorganized the system by removing part of power from the Christians – who had had a disproportionate influence – and handing it over to the Muslims in more equitable formulas.
Currently, the key points of the agreement stipulate that there must be a christian president and a Sunni Muslim prime ministerwhile the spokesperson must be a Shiite Muslim.
The inability to reach an agreement after the resignation of the prime minister prior to Mikati on the appointment of ministers delayed the process.
The “return of the establishment”
Much of Lebanese society views the formation of this new government with skepticism, explains the political scientist at Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
“People see it as a return from establishment, of the ruling class, who the cake has been distributed again. People don’t have high expectations or hopes that things are going to change. “
Thus, the thirteen-month wait was not worth much for the Lebanese who demanded a reform government.
The Najib Mikati government faces many challenges. In addition to negotiating its debt with the IMF, it will have to restructure a banking sector that has collapsed.
Other priorities of his government will be to try to solve the social and humanitarian emergencies that have left the crisis and to organize the legislative elections that should be held in May 2022.
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