The tumultuous start to 2011 with the collapse of the Saad Hariri government in Lebanon and the establishment, after several months of hard bargaining, of a new administration headed by Najib Mikati did not bode well for stability and economic improvement. But as the year draws to a close, the Mikati government has fared better than its detractors predicted.
The Tripoli businessman took a gamble by accepting the premiership in January, something of a poisoned chalice for a Sunni given the acrimonious manner of the ousting of Hariri, the leader of Future Movement and the pre-eminent Sunni political leader. Although Hezbollah engineered the downfall of the Hariri government and remains the quiet power behind the current government, Mikati has shown that he is no puppet of the Shiite party.
He has a reputation and international contacts in his own right, which in some ways make him a more useful partner for Hezbollah than an obedient drone.
One example is the debate over Lebanon's share of the funding for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which has dogged the political debate since the summer. Hezbollah has consistently said it opposes Lebanon paying its 49 percent share of the funding, a rejection echoed vociferously by the party's allies, especially Michel Aoun. Mikati, however, has assured the UN that Lebanon will honor its obligations and pay its share, going so far as to threaten resignation over the matter, and eventually fund it through a government body under his authority.
A Mikati who retains international credibility and is allowed to win some political tussles is not a threat to Hezbollah. On the contrary, Hezbollah is likely to pick its battles with the STL with care. Hezbollah clearly will stick to its stance of rejecting the STL funding, but that does not mean the government will follow suit.
Still, the STL funding issue is a mere hiccup compared to the historic events roiling Syria. There is a feeling in Lebanon that if Syria continues its descent into violence, it will inevitably spill across the border into Lebanon. Barely a day goes by without the local press reporting rumors of assassinations or militants arriving in the Palestinian refugee camps plotting nefarious deeds. The government faces the dilemma of juggling its loyalty toward the Assad government and accepting the reality that the regime may well founder in the coming months. The former stance will spare the government Assad's wrath but the latter will reshuffle the political cards in Lebanon in potentially dangerous ways.
Generally, international and regional players recognize the dilemma facing the Lebanese government and cannot be surprised when Lebanon is one of only three countries to vote against an Arab League proposal to suspend Syria's membership in the organization. Burying one's head in the sand is an essentially Lebanese means of dealing with unpalatable problems. But the influx of Syrian refugees escaping the violence and the prospect that some Sunni-populated areas in Lebanon near the border could become small-scale staging grounds for Syrian opposition fighters and activists will complicate Lebanon's ability to distance itself from the upheaval next door.
It is inevitable that Lebanon will feel some of the shockwaves emanating from Syria in the coming months, particularly if the struggle develops further into a sectarian conflict. But the real earthquake for Lebanon could occur if and when Assad is toppled, especially if the next regime better reflects the Sunni majority in Syria and aligns itself further from Iran and closer to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Such a development will give a boost of adrenaline to the March 14 movement, especially Future Movement. Would it sufficiently embolden them to make a fresh play at confronting Hezbollah, which, after all, will still remain Lebanon's strongest military and political player even without the strategic depth provided by an Assad-led Syria?
Hezbollah has a habit of reacting forcefully and decisively against any moves that threaten its resistance priority and the party will already have made plans to counter a reinvigorated March 14. Much depends on the tenacity of Assad to remain in power and how a deteriorating Syria will impact more broadly on the region. But 2012 appears to be shaping up to be a most interesting — and potentially unsettling — year.
NICHOLAS BLANFORD is Beirut correspondent for The Times of London and The Christian Science Monitor.