This final chapter of Mikati’s tenure seemed to be written well before he took the post in January 2011. Mikati, a prominent Sunni politician and millionaire businessman with international contacts, knew very well that Hezbollah, which effectively controls Lebanon’s government, would make life very difficult for him. Nevertheless, he accepted the challenge, perhaps naively believing that he could do something that no politician has been able to do since former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed on February 14, 2005: bring stability and normalcy to a country seemingly always on the verge of sectarian strife. In the end, though, he could not.
Armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites have since resumed in the city of Tripoli, the country’s second largest after Beirut. The Syrian government continues striking targets in the Bekaa Valley and in the north. Ransom kidnappers run wild. The threat of a serious internal war between Hezbollah and Sunni backers of the Free Syrian Army hangs heavily over the country.
Najib Mikati is not a Hezbollah member. And if the leaders of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group thought they could use him as a tool, they were wrong, at least for the most part. They’re the reason he got the job in the first place, but they’re also the reason he quit. Mikati has been pressing for Lebanese neutrality in the Syrian war, but Hezbollah wants Lebanon to side with Bashar al-Assad.
There are a couple of reasons Hezbollah picked Mikati for prime minister. Primarily because he is not Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik Hariri whose assassination in downtown Beirut kicked off the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in 2005.
Second, their pickings were slim. They couldn’t select one of their own. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the prime minister be from the Sunni community. (The president, meanwhile, must be a Christian while the speaker of parliament is reserved for the Shias.) And the number of competent Sunni politicians in Lebanon who sincerely support Hezbollah is zero. Syria has a small number of Sunni allies—and Mikati made his money in Syria—but Hezbollah doesn’t have any.
Mikati was the best they could get.
He looked like a Hezbollah ally on the surface, but only if you squinted hard and didn’t watch what he did or listen to the things that he said. He acted and sounded like an independent, and sometimes even like he was aligned with the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc. The man has not been easy to read, and it’s important not to get suckered when Middle Eastern politicians say things you want to hear just to get you on side. A Wikileaks cable published in 2011 quotes him describing Hezbollah as “cancerous” and saying he wishes to see their Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist statelet destroyed.
To fulfill his ambitious plan, Mikati sought to create a moderate center in Lebanese politics that could mediate the ongoing feud between Hezbollah, the party accused of killing Hariri, and Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq and prime minister between 2009 and 2011. He convinced Michel Suleiman, the serving president, and Walid Jumblatt, the influential Druze leader, to join his coalition. Then, for added credibility, Mikati sought political backing from regional powers, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Even Iran and the United States, which had been fighting a cold war in the Middle East (often through proxies on Lebanese soil), gave their blessings to Mikati’s plan.
For its part, Hezbollah, the dominant party in Lebanon’s politics since Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and Syria’s forced exit shortly afterward, judged that it could afford having Mikati in charge of the cabinet as long as he did not cross any red lines that threatened Hezbollah’s security. To be sure, the Shia party kept putting Mikati in some very uncomfortable positions.
First, in 2011, Hezbollah’s leaders rejected calls for Lebanon to support the United Nations’ special tribunal on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Mikati threatened to resign if Hezbollah kept obstructing. Grumbling, Hezbollah decided to cut its losses and agree to cooperate, despite the fact that the international body was about to implicate the group in Hariri’s murder.
Second came the assassination in October 2012 of Wissam al-Hassan, the director of the intelligence branch of Lebanon’s internal security forces (the Hariri camp believes that Hezbollah and Syria are behind the killing). With ties to the Hariri family and Saudi Arabia, he was a major Sunni figure in Lebanon’s sectarian politics. He was, in effect, the country’s intelligence tsar, the man who knew the state’s most intimate secrets. Supposedly, one of those secrets was evidence of a spate of assassinations of anti-Syrian individuals by Hezbollah, starting with Rafiq Hariri in 2005. And that knowledge had made him a target.
The political shock and (limited) sectarian violence that followed Hassan’s death made Mikati think seriously about resigning -- he even informed the cabinet of his decision to quit. But Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States counseled Mikati to soldier on for the sake of Lebanon’s stability. So he did, but the political costs for him of governing above an unpopular Hezbollah-controlled government were starting to pile up. Among his main support base, which is Sunni, he was losing ground.
Hezbollah is on the verge of losing one major regional ally if Bashar al-Assad goes in Syria. Further, a confrontation between Iran and Israel and the United States over the nuclear issue could spell doom for the Shia party. In that respect, it does make some sense for Hezbollah to try to fortify its position in Lebanon by eliminating its opponents.
In Lebanon, governments and prime ministers come and go, but Mikati’s departure signals a sad end to what was a worthwhile political experiment in moderate centrist politics. Had Mikati succeeded, his effort could have been emulated across the Middle East. With his failure, though, Lebanon’s fault lines will continue to deepen -- and absent necessary Sunni-Shia reconciliation, the country could slide into another civil war. The country is closer now to collapse than it has been at any time since the civil war ended.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit AFP: Najib Mikati