By Riad Kahwaji, CEO INEGMA
The last few days witnessed a dramatic turn of events in Lebanon, with a Western-backed House majority leader losing grip on power in a highly-tense tug of war with a Syrian-Iranian-backed opposition forces in parliament. Prime Minister Saad Hariri stood helplessly and in shock watching some of his coalition members change sides giving the opposition, known as March-8 Forces, a narrow three-seat majority in the 128-member parliament. This was the first time Hariri’s group, otherwise known as March-14 Forces, have lost parliamentary majority and control over power since the so-called Cedar Revolution sparked by the death of his father, former Premier Rafik Hariri, brought about an end to a 29-year-long Syrian military presence in the country. Although the pre-dominantly Shiite Hizbullah spearheaded the campaign to unseat Hariri, the crippling blow came from within March-14, drawing the attention of the young premier to the presence of prominent Muslim Sunni figures who wish to have a shot at the premiership and not happy to see constant control over it by one figure or family –Hariri(s).
The newly appointed Prime Minister Najib Mikati is a prominent figure inside and outside Lebanon. Like Hariri (farther and son) he is also a multi-billionaire, even ranking higher than Hariri on the Forbes 100 richest men in the world. He has a longer experience in politics than Hariri, and has a wide range of political and business relations across the globe. Moreover, he is a former Prime Minister. Mikati was not the only Sunni who defected from Hariri’s coalition, two others from Mikati’s hometown, Tripoli, a major Sunni Muslim stronghold in northern Lebanon, also crossed over to the other side. Druze leader Walid Jumblat, along with six members of his mixed Christian-Druze parliamentary block had moved out of the majority a day earlier and joined the opposition, eventually shrinking Hariri’s 71-seat majority to only 61. Mikati carries so much weight that when March-8 leaders learned of his willingness to compete with Hariri they quickly dropped their first choice, one of their own, the old ex-premier Omar Karami, and supported him. Most observers believe that Hariri would have narrowly defeated Karami who does not hold as much clout, inside and outside Lebanon, as Mikati.
March-14 reaction has thus far been furious, with its leaders accusing Mikati of treason and of being a puppet premier to Hizbullah, chosen to achieve the latter’s demands: Undermine an international tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri senior and other political figures; and to protect Hizbullah’s right to possess arms under the pretext of being a resistance force fighting Israeli occupation of parts of south Lebanon. Several press reports published over the past year have quoted alleged leaked documents from the tribunal saying Hizbullah members were behind the assassination of Hariri and other figures. Hizbullah denied the reports and accused the tribunal of being an American-Israeli tool out to destroy Hizbullah’s reputation and undermine its role as a resistance movement credited for ending Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in 2000. In several television interviews Mikati denied striking a deal with Hizbullah for his nomination and asserted he would seek a solution for the many disputes in the country, including one over the tribunal, via dialogue.
The violent demonstrations and heated sectarian anti-Hizbullah and anti Syria and Iran speeches by March-14 figures and supporters in reaction to Mikati’s appointment has drawn criticism from many, including a main regional ally of Hariri, Saudi Arabia. Daoud Shiryan, a prominent Saudi columnist wrote in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat paper on January 26 that March-14 reaction was similar to that of Hizbullah when it objected to Hariri’s previous parliamentary victories and democratic-based actions. He advised Hariri and his supporters to accept and respect the outcome of the constitutional process. Several observers pointed out that Mikati does have his own Saudi, French, Syrian and American political connections, and subsequently would eventually have the political support needed to form a government and try to tackle some of Lebanon’s complex problems that have been troubling the region.
Of course there are no guarantees when it comes to Lebanese politics, but perhaps new blood and approach could prove more effective and successful after Hariri and March-14 Forces have hit a dead-end and lacked the strength to function efficiently. Most analysts had doubts that Hariri would have been able to form a new government anytime soon if he was named premier. His resigned government included members of Hizbullah and other opposition groups that enjoyed veto powers, which in turn disabled it from making any major achievements. With Mikati in power and his strong personal relations with leaderships in Damascus, Riyadh and Paris, and the backing of Hizbullah, the Druze leadership and a good chunk of Christian parliamentarians, he would be able to form a government in a relatively short period of time. Hizbullah nominated Mikati this time as it did nominate Hariri to the premiership in 2009. The main difference this time was that Mikati, an experienced politician with wide ambitions, sensed the weakness of Hariri and saw an opening to make a quick grab to the number one Sunni Muslim seat in the country and took it despite the opposition of the majority of the Sunni street to his nomination. Some observers believe if it was not him it would have been another prominent Sunni figure like Mohammed Safadi, who also walked out of the March-14 coalition.
The main question being asked in the West and other places around the world today is: Would Mikati be able to deliver or achieve what Hariri failed to do? It is not clear since each one of the regional and international powers have different expectations of a Lebanese premier. After all Lebanon is an arena for settling regional and international disputes. He has taken on a huge task of maintaining stability by keeping Lebanon outside regional and international confrontations. He also has to help Lebanon emerge from acute economic hardships, reduce sectarian tension, deal with over 300,000 impoverished Palestinian refugees and spare Lebanon another war with Israel. Challenges facing Mikati are big and difficult. A Western diplomat in Beirut described Mikati “as a man of compromises, which could be a problem in a country where politicians nowadays are expected by their foreign allies to take sides and not stay in the grey area.” But many observers believe that in the brief period he was a prime minister in 2005, he had succeeded in overcoming problems and delivering results that satisfied all parties. So maybe this time he can do something positive if he is given a fair chance.
However it should be noted that in 2005, Mikati had the backing of both March-8 and March-14 Forces, while this time he is perceived as a March-8 or Hizbullah candidate brought in to serve Hizbullah’s agenda. His first task would be to regain trust of the Lebanese Sunni street as well as some of the March-14 members before he can function comfortably and overcome the many challenges ahead. One would think this task should be easy if Mikati sends the right signals and takes the needed steps. He does hold big leverage on March-8 Forces because of his credentials – major Sunni figure with wide-ranging international connections. They could not dream of a better partner. If they fall out with him, Mikati would simply walk away leaving them with a possible one choice and that is accepting Hariri back in office. So, he might be able to do something after all. Only time will tell.