Najib Mikati named Lebanon's new PM-designate amidst country's worsening crisis

Najib Mikati named Lebanon's new PM-designate amidst country's worsening crisis
Lebanese politician Najib Mikati was tasked with forming a new government, following parliamentary consultations at the Baabda presidential palace on Monday.
4 min read
26 July, 2021
Najib Mikati will face the same opposition as Hariri in forming a government, though his new parliamentary 'mandate' may give him more leverage [TNA]

Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati  has been confirmed as Lebanon's new prime-minister designate, after winning a clear majority of votes from lawmakers at the Baabda presidential palace on Monday.

Mikati, who has been prime minister twice before, is tasked with forming a new government for Lebanon, which has been without one for over nine months.

His appointment follows former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's resignation from the same position almost two weeks earlier.

Mikati is seen as a moderate candidate, broadly acceptable to several key political players in Lebanon, with the exception of President Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil’s political bloc.

Notably, Hezbollah's political bloc (Wafaa) voted for Mikati, when they abstained in the vote for Hariri over nine months ago.

His appointment was generally expected and came close to being confirmed on Sunday night when four former prime ministers, including Hariri, met to endorse Mikati as the new designate.

Mikati has said that if he comes up against the same opposition that Hariri faced he will be quick to resign, in what seems to be a public signal that he expects more cooperation and support from parliament.

Who is Najib Mikati?

Mikati hails from Tripoli, and along with his brother, Taha, is one of the richest men in Lebanon. The brothers are the owners of the M1 Group, a multinational holding company with investments across the world.

Most recently, the conglomerate attracted attention for its purchase of a telecom company in Myanmar, sparking panic among Myanmarese activists who fear the company will turn phone and internet data over to the ruling military junta.

Mikati made most of his money from the telecoms industry, forming a phone company in Lebanon in the 80s before the international company Investcom.

Investcom quickly expanded into ten other countries such as Syria, Sudan, and Ghana. After being listed publicly on the London stock exchange, the company was purchased for over $5 billion by South African telecom MTN.

Mikati was caretaker prime minister in 2005, after then-Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned. He became prime minister again in 2011 after Saad Hariri resigned, and governed until 2013.

He is known for his proximity to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who granted him the first private telecom license in Syria in 2001. However, reports have emerged that there are tensions between him and the Assad family.

This was most recently reflected after the Syrian government demanded that MTN - in which the M1 Group is the largest shareholder - pay $32 million in "back taxes".

Like Hariri, he is supported by France and the US.

Although Mikati is approved by much of the political class and international community, he is widely seen as emblematic of the endemic corruption which has thrust Lebanon into its current political and economic malaise. On the night before the parliamentary consultations, demonstrators gathered outside his Beirut home and protested against his appointment.

Both Mikati brothers are both under investigation for corruption, after a state prosecutor alleged in 2019 they misused a loan meant to provide housing to low income individuals. The prosecutor claimed they used the loan to buy themselves apartments, although the brothers deny the charge.

Steering a sinking ship

Mikati will assume the position of prime minister-designate as Lebanon is faced with a dire economic disaster, described by the World Bank as one of the "top three" global crisis episodes since the 1850s. Since the crisis unfolded in 2019, the Lebanese lira has lost over 90 percent of its value while the prices of basic goods have soared.

Forming a government is key to unlocking much-needed international aid for Lebanon. The international community has refrained from giving any financial aid to Lebanon until the country forms a new government and enacts political and economic reforms.

It is hoped his appointment will bring some relief for the battered country, as the lira appreciated significantly after the news, trading at under 16,500 to the US dollar, compared to 22,000 just a few days prior.

Still, it is unclear if or how Mikati can clear the significant gridlock which Hariri faced for so many months. Mikati, a Sunni businessman, similar to his predecessor, is of the same background and political affiliation as Hariri.

The key opposition which faced Hariri came from President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Unless there is some change in position from either side, it is likely that Mikati will struggle with the same political obstacles in forming a government as his predecessor.

The window to form a government is quickly closing, as Lebanon’s general elections are scheduled for May 2022.

Note: An earlier version of this article was corrected to reflect that Mr. Mikati had not yet been officially designated as prime minister, only that he has secured a majority of votes for the move expected on Monday afternoon.