Lebanon's New Leader Vows To Bridge Divides

There were angry and at times violent protests across Lebanon on Tuesday, after a politician backed by Hezbollah was named prime minister. Najib Mikati is a Sunni and a billionaire, who pledged Tuesday that "his hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians." For more, host Melissa Block speaks to Rami Khouri, director of the Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and a syndicated columnist at the Daily Star in Lebanon.

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There were angry and at times violent protests across Lebanon today, what was billed as a day of rage after a politician backed by the Shiite movement Hezbollah was named prime minister.

He is Najib Mikati. He's a Sunni and a billionaire who made his fortune in the telecom industry. Mikati pledged today that his hand is extended to all factions to end division through dialogue. But is that possible?

Rami Khouri joins me now from Beirut. He's a columnist with the Daily Star in Lebanon. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Columnist, The Daily Star): Thank you.

BLOCK: We've heard Najib Mikati billing himself as a consensus candidate. What can you tell us about his connections with Hezbollah, who backed him as prime minister, his ties with Syria, say, or Iran?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, it's really none of the above. He is not known to be somebody who is associated or linked with or identified with Iran, Syria or Hezbollah. But he has good working relations with the Syrians and Hezbollah, as he does with Hariri and all the other Lebanese groups.

The reason he was chosen is precisely because he comes, you know, right down the middle. He's a kid of Gerry Ford figure, in a way, in American terms. He is seen to be somebody who can bring together the fighting or feuding Lebanese groups.

BLOCK: If the new prime minister is this right-down-the-middle figure that you describe, why have there been chants at the protest today among Sunnis saying Sunni blood is boiling?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, first of all, the expression blood is boiling is really rhetorical, the equivalent of somebody in the United States saying I'm mad as hell, or I'm going to kick his ass or something like that. These are rhetorical expressions. So when you translate it into English, it sounds like really something terrible. But when you say that (foreign language spoken), it means your blood is boiling, it just means you're really angry.

BLOCK: Well, why are they angry?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, they're angry because they feel that Hariri's bloc had a parliamentary majority, and they felt that by Hezbollah and Aoun and the others pulling out of the government, forcing the government to collapse and then needing to form a new government, the Hezbollah-led opposition, which they see as a proxy for Iran and Syria, especially Iran, they see this as a kind of constitutional coup.

They use the word (foreign language spoken) that it was a coup because the prime minister is always a Sunni in Lebanon, the speaker of parliament is a Shiite, and the president is a Christian Maronite.

And normally, it's up to the people of each denomination, of each religion, to designate who will be the person who takes that position. And the Sunnis feel that the Shiites essentially took away that prerogative, and some people are saying that this is a prime minister now appointed by the (foreign language spoken), which is Khamenei in Iran because Hezbollah is linked to the supreme leader in Iran.

And of course, that's an exaggeration. But it shows you the nature of the tensions and the concerns in the country, and it's serious stuff. It's quite scary stuff.

But the tendency to resolve these conflicts and prevent fighting clearly for several years has been greater than the tendency to give in to these impulses and get out on the street and start shooting each other and fighting, and I think that's going to prevail.

BLOCK: There is, though, another hot-button issue, and that has to do with the U.N. tribunal's investigation into the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. There are sealed indictments in that case, and they're expected to name members of Hezbollah. So what has the new prime minister, Najib Mikati, said about that? If he has the backing of Hezbollah, would you assume that he has agreed to cut ties with the tribunal?

Mr. KHOURI: He hasn't said anything about it public, and his views are very well known. He probably, almost certainly, would like to see the tribunal carry out its task.

The majority of Lebanese want the tribunal to do its job. They want to find the killers of Hariri and 22 other people, and at the same time, he probably feels that if the cost of doing this is blood then war in Lebanon, then it has to be rethought.

So I think his sense is that you have to find a middle ground, where the tribunal can perhaps continue its work, but to disassociate it from the direct association and structural involvement of the Lebanese government, that's the path that Mikati has to try to walk.

BLOCK: Rami Khouri, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. KHOURI: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Rami Khouri is director of the Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He's also a columnist with the Daily Star in Lebanon.

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