Prime minister designate Najib Mikati has been called on before to navigate difficult transitions. In his first posting as prime minister between April and July of 2005, he presided over the transition from the Syrian-dominated era to the elections of 2005 that brought in a Western-backed anti-Syrian March 14 majority; today he is presiding over a reverse transition back to a pro-Syrian March 8majority.
Before, he presided over the aftermath of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination; today he is asked to manage the repercussions of its international investigation. Earlier, he stepped in to ease explosive Lebanese-Syrian tensions; now he is being asked to defuse Sunni-Shia hostility. Indeed, the challenges facing Mikati are daunting, but in the few days since his nomination he has renewed hopes that perhaps a stable and peaceful way forward is possible.
The key variable in his success or failure is the stance of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh suffered a blow in May 2008 when Hizbullah defeated its allies in Beirut and it suffered a further blow when Syria and the Lebanese opposition refused to give it and Saad Hariri’s government any concessions in exchange for Hariri breaking with the tribunal. The final blows were the opposition’s bringing down of Hariri’s government and Walid Jumblatt’s change of allegiance to grant March 8 a majority in parliament. This new majority could remain until the next parliamentary elections in 2013, and possibly beyond.
Saudi Arabia now faces a stark choice: it can acknowledge the new unfavourable status quo and work with Mikati to moderate March 8policies from within the new government; or it can stonewall the new government and exclusively support the new Hariri-led opposition. In all likelihood, it will do a bit of both.
Saudi Arabia is aware that the opposition’s insistence that Lebanon distance itself from the tribunal will have to be satisfied sooner rather than later. It might be more convenient to them for Mikati to grant that concession rather than his predecessor, as that will not seriously discredit the tribunal in regional and international opinion and will allow Hariri to keep waving the tribunal’s flag.
Riyadh could work with Mikati to bolster the Sunni presence in the new government and to provide some counterbalance to Hezbollah and other March 8 forces, while continuing to support Hariri and the March 14 opposition. In that context, the Mikati government might be short-lived; once it distances the Lebanese state from the tribunal, its main function would have been served. After that, it might give way to a return to a national unity government including both March 8 and March 14.
Once Lebanon officially breaks with the tribunal, Hezbollah itself might be interested in bringing March 14 back into government — and even into the prime minister’s office — because it is aware that a government over which it has too much obvious dominance exposes it to intense risk from Israel and the United States. Syria would also be interested in rebuilding relations with the Sunni community in Lebanon and the region after the issue of the tribunal has caused so much tension. Any new government faces serious social, economic and political challenges, and Mikati is trying to assemble a varied team to deal with them. Throughout the government’s tenure, however, the Hariri-led opposition will probably keep the pressure up, claiming that the government is unrepresentative and unconstitutional.
Even with Mikati’s best efforts, Sunni-Shia relations will remain tense. In this context, the real risk facing the country is not the formation of the government but the impact of the indictments, if and when they are made public. At that point, the country’s fate might be decided. If the indictments point to high officials in Hezbollah and are backed up with convincing evidence, the country might descend toward serious sectarian strife; alternatively, if the indictments point to low or unconnected operatives and/or appear based on flimsy or circumstantial evidence, the country could put this chapter behind it and rebuild stability and power sharing.
In either case, Najib Mikati has a very challenging time ahead of him.
PAUL SALEM is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut