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Neutrality Disputed

Najib Mikati
Najib Mikati
Najib Mikati
Najib Mikati

“Lebanon can only be governed through consensus,” said Najib Mikati in an interview with the Almushahed Alsiyasi magazine on 24 October. Four months later, Mikati was selected as prime minister— for the second time in his political career—in a context barely approaching consensus. Mikati joined forces with the Hezbollah-led parliamentary minority, to defeat incumbent Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri in one of the most polarized votes in the history of the country, which saw 68 lawmakers voting for Mikati and 60 for Hariri.

Mikati was elected to parliament in June 2009 on Hariri’s ticket,and had been a member of the Hariri-led parliamentary majority until, seeing an opportunity for a second term as prime minister, he turned coat. Hariri has said he considers himself betrayed by Mikati, but the prime minister designate is adamant to the contrary. Last month, he told Alhayat daily that the tension between him and Hariri was a mere storm in a teacup, and expected it to be over soon because he would not “allow for a storm inside the Sunni house.”

Like Hariri, Mikati is Sunni, which allows him to become prime minister as stipulated by the Lebanese constitution. And like Hariri, Mikati is a billionaire, with a fortune estimated at $2.5 billion by Forbes magazine. But unlike Hariri— who refused to bow to pressure to delegitimize the UN-created Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and therefore invite Hezbollah’s wrath— Mikati enjoys Hezbollah’s trust since, the March 14 group allege, the prime minister designate has “promised” Hezbollah that scrapping Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL would be the first item on his new cabinet’s agenda. To test him on the STL issue, March 14 said they would join a Mikati-led national unity cabinet if its platform promises to continue Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal.

Mikati has denied promising anyone anything. He claims he has not promised Hezbollah to kill off the tribunal, so he shall not promise March 14 any safeguards. Instead, Mikati stated that his plan was to revive the S-S formula, a domestic compromise presumably sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Syria. However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal had publically said that the kingdom “pulled its hand” from Lebanon after Syrian President Bashar Assad failed to deliver on his promises.

With reviving S-S out of question for now, compromise seems untenable and Mikati will have to choose between two ostensibly simple options. He either listens to his sponsors in parliament—Hezbollah and its allies—and ends Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal that aims to bring to justice perpetrators of the 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, or he refuses such a scheme.

Should Mikati grant Hezbollah their wish, the “storm in the Sunni house” in Lebanon looks unavoidable. After all, Rafik Hariri was a notable Sunni leader, and if his assassination ultimately goes unpunished, the Sunnis of Lebanon might hold Mikati responsible. But if Mikati tries to save the STL, his cabinet – like that of Hariri before him – might collapse under Hezbollah’s threats and pressure.

Observers have noted a third scenario in which Mikati may be forced by an inevitably pro-Hezbollah majority cabinet to discuss Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL. The newly convened cabinet could then vote on ending cooperation, even if Mikati and his ministers vote against Hezbollah. This way, Mikati will emerge as an STL defender who was outvoted inside his own cabinet.

Mikati is not in an enviable position, many wonder why he accepted this job. But according to the man himself, he did so because he saw “signs of danger surrounding the Lebanese society and the unity of Lebanon.” He told Alhayat: “There are several cracks inside the Lebanese house and there should be a responsible stance through which we choose to primarily safeguard Lebanon’s unity.”

Would unity be at the expense of the STL? Mikati does not give a clear answer. Instead, he argues that in 2006, several Lebanese leaders held national dialogue in which they arrived at a consensus in favor of safeguarding “justice and truth” regarding the Hariri murder. How such justice and truth can be achieved without the STL, Mikati does not say. He promises that the issue will be up for national discussion, something that Hariri tried and failed at for over a year.

While Mikati did not promise to “protect” STL, he promised instead to “protect the resistance,” the generic name of Hezbollah’s armed militia. “Yes, I said I was committed to protecting the resistance because I consider that the resistance did great achievements and we have to protect it now, as long as Israel is violating our airspace and our water,” said the new prime minister. Justifying Hezbollah’s arms and relegating the STL to future national dialogue does not sit well with March 14. This makes the Hariri-led coalition therefore insist that they will remain in the opposition, and that Mikati is Hezbollah’s candidate.

Mikati has contested that he was Hezbollah’s man, saying that he was running for the position, and Hezbollah happened to vote for him. March 14 counter that without the parliamentary bloc of Hezbollah and its allies, Mikati would receive four only MP votes and lose to Hariri. As long as he owes his job to the party, Mikati is expected to listen to it, something that the new prime minister has repeatedly tried to refute.

Mikati has been described as a smart and successful businessman. But in politics, he has yet to prove his class. The self-made billionaire was first appointed minister when the Syrians forced Rafik Hariri out of power in 1998. Mikati was elected to parliament in 2000, under Syrian supervision, and stayed in the cabinet until 2004. His peak came in 2005, when at the height of division between March 14 and Hezbollah, Mikati was chosen as a compromise candidate to form his first cabinet. But since then, the situation has changed. March 14 is not in a compromise mood with Hezbollah, forcing Mikati to rely completely on the party for his cabinet’s survival, something that might in turn undermine his independence.

“Judge me on my deeds” has been Mikati’s slogan since his appointment on 25 January, a statement that found resonance in Western capitals that said that they would not boycott Mikati “preemptively” but shall wait and see. Until Mikati performs a miracle that keeps both March 14 and Hezbollah happy, his self-claimed neutrality will be disputed. After all, as neutral as he can get, Mikati only became prime minister after defeating a former ally. It might take him a long time to prove he has been impartial all along.

Published: Thursday 03 March 2011 Updated: Thursday 03 March 2011

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