The ascent of a Hezbollah-backed billionaire to the prime minister’s post in deeply divided Lebanon on Tuesday sparked rioting and protests by Sunni Muslims and pushed the country into uncertainty.
Lebanon’s new prime minister-designate, Najib Mikati, pledged to pursue an independent, centrist path and insisted that he was not beholden to Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militia and political organization. But his words did little to mollify supporters of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the powerful leader of the country’s Sunni community. They rioted throughout the country.
In Tripoli and Sunni districts of Beirut and other cities, young male supporters of Hariri took to the streets, setting fire to tires and cars and attacking journalists suspected of sympathizing with Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria. The former prime minister took to the airwaves to urge his followers to calm down.
As dusk settled, the army appeared to have restored order, and many Lebanese were relieved that the rampage failed to spark sectarian clashes. But bitterness remained over what many Sunnis felt was a negation of the results of a 2009 election that gave Hariri and his allies a majority.
“We won the parliamentary elections and now we feel like our voice has been robbed,” said Muhyeddine Khatib, 24, a mechanical engineer who joined a small, peaceful rally in support of Hariri in the center of the capital.
An international court’s anticipated indictments of Hezbollah members in the 2005 killing of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, lie at the heart of Lebanon’s complicated political crisis, which generally pits a U.S.- and Saudi-backed camp against an alliance of parties supported by Iran and Syria.
Mikati, 55, a Sunni from Tripoli, has yet to clarify whether he will meet Hezbollah’s demands to cut ties with the United Nations-backed tribunal. He was elected after a key bloc of lawmakers tied to Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a onetime U.S. ally, defected from Hariri’s camp and gave Hezbollah’s allies a 68-to-60 vote advantage in parliament.
Mikati must still name a Cabinet amenable to parliament before he can govern. Hariri and his allies have said they will not to join any Hezbollah-backed government.
The events caused concern in Washington, which staunchly backs Hariri. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that a “Hezbollah-dominated government” could cost Lebanon hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid.
Lebanon has long been a battleground for regional powers backing the country’s various religious communities. Under a power-sharing agreement, Sunnis traditionally take the prime minister’s post, Christians the presidency and Shiites the speakership of parliament. Other ministries also are generally allocated in horse-trading among the communities.
Most of Lebanon’s Sunnis and the U.S. challenge Mikati’s legitimacy, arguing that Hariri should be prime minister because he is widely considered the leader of the community.
“As I understand Lebanese politics, it’s not only important that the top position in government reflect a democratic majority but that they embody the aspirations of the community they represent,” Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters during a visit to Tunisia. “To the extent that he’s not the … representative of the Sunni community, who is he representing?”
Mikati told the BBC after the vote that he has no connection to Hezbollah, sidestepping a question about his stance on the tribunal.
“If there is anything to be done on a Lebanese level it will be done by dialogue, by consensus,” he said. “The tribunal exists, it is there, it is not made by me, it is in the hands of the international community.”
Mikati earned a fortune in the telecommunications industry and is worth an estimated $2.5 billion. He served as minister of public works from 1998 to 2004 and briefly as prime minister in 2005.
Many analysts believe Mikati reached a deal with Hezbollah and its allies as well as Saudi Arabia, the regional backer of Lebanon’s Sunnis. But the terms of that agreement are still unclear, as is the degree to which Hezbollah will influence the new government.
Lutz is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.