The turmoil in Syria has left Lebanon’s own political situation completely in flux. Months ago, Hezbollah arranged for Najib Mikati to become prime minister. Mikati is a Sunni, as Lebanon’s constitution requires, but he was not the true representative of the country’s Sunni community. That man was Saad Hariri, forced out of the government by Hezbollah and its allies.
But the new arrangement, finally consummated today with a vote of confidence for Mikati in Lebanon’s parliament, is dead before it starts. It reflects the old balance of power, when Hezbollah’s ally Bashar al-Assad was fully in charge in Syria. Today the Assad regime is foundering, and its influence in Lebanon will continue to diminish as players make their own new bets about life in Lebanon after the Assads are gone from Syria.
The best way to understand events in Lebanon is to read the columns of Michael Young, opinion editor of the English-language Daily Star newspaper of Beirut. Young’s most recent column is reprinted below, for as always he provides insight and clarity.
By Michael Young
Last Saturday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, did more to discredit Prime Minister Najib Mikati than did all the sour statements issued by March 14. In rejecting any cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Nasrallah undermined Mikati’s acrobatic efforts to reassure the international community that Lebanon would fulfill its international obligations.
Rather than react to this humiliation by responding to his alleged political comrade, Mikati instead warned March 14 last Monday, on the eve of the parliamentary session preceding a vote of confidence, that “sabotaging the nation is a crime.” Such an act would indeed be a crime, one the former majority should stray away from. But one has to be serious: If anything will sabotage the nation, it’s a statement to the effect that the special tribunal, and implicitly the Lebanese authorities, will never arrest the four suspects in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. “They cannot find them or arrest them in 30 days or 60 days, or in a year, two years, 30 years or 300 years,” Nasrallah told his audience, explaining most transparently that he bows to no nation, least of all the nation in whose government he has two ministers.
Mikati must feel himself being sucked into a maelstrom he cannot withstand. Things looked simpler in January, when he took a political risk in standing against Saad Hariri and getting the nod as prime minister. Mikati thought that he could embody a Saudi-Syrian understanding over Lebanon, which had escaped Hariri. He also believed that he enjoyed support from France and Qatar, and no opposition from the United States. Perhaps he even imagined that these advantages would compel March 14 to enter a national-unity government.
These were more or less defensible calculations to make, except for two things: The Saudis and Syrians had explored ways to break off altogether Lebanon’s relationship with the special tribunal. Mikati, in contrast, has never publicly shown a willingness to go that far. And he knew that foreign endorsement of his team, as well as acceptance by March 14, would hinge on displaying clarity toward U.N. resolutions.
Mikati’s fortunes took a slide immediately after his appointment. Syrian friends, the Turks and the Qataris were more unhappy with Hariri’s ouster than it initially appeared, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed this to President Bashar Assad at a February meeting in Aleppo. Damascus paused, as it did again when demonstrations began against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Why impose a hasty outcome in Beirut, the Syrians seemed think, amid so much regional volatility? Better to wait and see.
So, Mikati waited and what we saw was the outbreak of an emancipation movement in Syria. Suddenly, the prime minister-designate’s world started unraveling. Mikati had counted on his good rapport with Assad to provide a counterweight to his new and troublesome political associates, Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. The Syrians were, at least for the moment, out of the picture, focusing on repression at home. Mikati realized that a poorly balanced Cabinet could mean his utter marginalization. His Sunni base in the north was surveying events in Syria with growing discontent. And so Mikati had no choice but to delay putting a government together.
Shrewdly, Aoun read Mikati’s motives correctly and pursued his maximalist demands on ministerial portfolios, sensing there was no point in conceding anything if a government was deferred. Like Hezbollah he waited for the situation to change, and it did once the Assads realized that they had a full-blown insurrection on their hands, one with existential implications. Lebanon had initially been viewed by the Syrian regime as a hostage which it could destabilize to warn outside countries against weakening the Syrian regime. Then Bashar Assad and his acolytes reconsidered, sensing that the country would be more useful as a pliable weapon in Syria’s hands.
After Walid Jumblatt met with Assad on June 9, word came down that the Lebanese had to reach an agreement quickly on forming a government. Mikati managed to get two more Sunnis than Shiites, and with Jumblatt and President Michel Sleiman has 11 ministers. This provides the three, who make up a so-called “centralist bloc,” with veto power over government decisions. However, the numbers are symbolic. The prime minister knows perfectly well that Jumblatt’s and Sleiman’s margin of maneuver, like his own, is almost nil.
Then Nasrallah put everything into perspective Saturday night. What should Mikati do about it? It’s probably too late for him to salvage his political career. The prime minister is the prisoner of partners whose priorities can only sink him and his agenda. With the tribunal indictment out, Mikati will find himself protecting Hezbollah against a widespread perception among Sunnis that the party helped murder their pre-eminent communal representative.
As the carnage continues in Syria, Mikati can prepare for more headaches. His electorate fears for Syria’s Sunnis against an Assad-led military onslaught. As for the prime minister’s latitude to resign against Syria’s wishes and bring down the government, it is very narrow indeed. Such a move would not only spell an end to Mikati’s brief political audition, it would probably come with a financial price, since Mikati’s M1 Group owns the largest single share in a South African company operating one of the mobile networks in Syria.
Now, with Nasrallah renewing his condemnation of the special tribunal, Mikati’s government is on a collision course with the U.N. and the international community. The prime minister pitiably articulated that Lebanon, even if it was not quite committed to international resolutions, nonetheless would “respect” them. But in just a few sentences Nasrallah affirmed that the government could employ whatever language it desired, but the reality was that Hezbollah defined the red lines of the government’s actions, not Najib Mikati.
The prime minister’s fate is now tied to Bashar Assad’s. If the Syrian regime goes, Mikati will follow. The problem is that if Assad stays, Mikati will remain a cipher, even less consequential than was Salim al-Hoss when he headed the first government under President Emile Lahoud. Mikati’s foes want to see him politically debilitated; but the prime minister’s problem is that most of his colleagues in government want that too, for it ensures that he remains their man.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by The Wall Street Journal. He tweets @BeirutCalling.