Watchman Newsletter

Lebanon Braces for a New Hizbullah-friendly Government

The Media Line (Link) - David E. Miller (January 26, 2011)

Lebanon�s new prime minister, billionaire Najib Mikati, spent his first day in office Wednesday seeking to assuage doubts among Lebanon�s non-Shiite population and the West.

But observers said Mikati was starting a difficult assignment as leader of a religiously fractured country beset by foreign interference and deep divisions over whether to cooperate with a United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Mikati�s chief asset is that he was nominated for the post by Hizbullah, the Shiite movement that brought down the last government and commands a militia that outguns Lebanon official army. But Makiti will have to convince the U.S. and the West he isn�t leading Lebanon into the arms of Iran and Syria, Hizbullah�s backers. He will also have to convince Lebanon�s Sunni Muslim and Christian communities he is a leader for the entire nation.

�The complaint that Mikati isn�t representative is correct,� Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, a political scientist at Lebanon�s Notre Dame University told The Media Line. �If his government holds, it would mean that the March 8 Alliance [Hizbullah�s political bloc] has bid farewell to comprehensive participation in decision making.�

While a democracy, Lebanon�s political structure is a delicate balance of religious politics that assigns each position to a member of a particular community. The prime minister must be a Sunni as is Mikati. However, the Lebanese system, known as Consociationalism, has always granted religious factions the right to nominate their own candidates.

But members of Hariri�s March 14 Alliance argued the fact that Mikati was a Sunni was less important than that he is answerable to the Shiite Hizbullah organization, rather than to his own co-religionists. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied accusations that his party was taking over Lebanon through Mikati�s nomination in a televised speech Tuesday.

Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon researcher at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, agreed, saying it would be wrong to call the new government a Hizbullah government. Mikati was too wise and experienced to allow himself to become a Hizbullah puppet. �He would bury himself by doing what Hizballah wants,� Shehadi said. �It would be political suicide for him.�

Lebanon was calm on Wednesday, following two days of protests against Mikati�s nomination. In a conciliatory move, on Tuesday the new prime minister called on Sa�ad Hariri, the ousted premier and a fellow billionaire, to join a broad coalition government, a proposal Hariri rejected.

Hariri�s camp was unable to sustain prolonged anti-Hizbullah protests, casting doubt on his ability to effectively oppose the new government.

�Everyone was expecting larger protests,� Sahar Atrache, a Lebanon analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told The Media Line. �There was no real mobilization of the street.�

Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, head of the Israel Defense Force Intelligence Corps told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that it was �unclear� whether Hizbullah would try to seize power, pointing to the problems Hamas, the Islamic Palestinian group, has suffered after it seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

�Hezbollah has learned from Hamas that there are many limitations once you are in power. Hezbollah wants to influence the government but not be the official address,� Kochavi said.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that a Hizbullah-controlled government would adversely affect U.S.-Lebanon relations. Saudi Arabia�s Foreign Ministry advised its citizens against travelling to Lebanon �until the return of calm and stability,� the official SPA news agency reported on Wednesday.

Mikati, 55, served as prime minister for three months in 2005 immediately following Hariri�s assassination, but he is more of a technocrat that the kind of political bosses that dominate the country�s political life. A graduate of American University of Beirut and Harvard, Mikati is well-known in Lebanon as a shrewd businessman, ranked by Forbes as the 446th richest man in the world.

Mikati�s first test may be his most difficult when his government decides on how to relate to the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), established at the request of the Lebanese government and partly funded by it to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Rafik�s son, Sa�ad, withstood significant pressure by his coalition partner, Hizbullah, to denounce the tribunal as a biased foreign conspiracy. The crisis finally brought down his government when Hizbullah resigned January 12.

Hariri may not yet be out of the picture. Lebanon�s next parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in mid 2013. Sensenig-Dabbous said Mikati�s government could mark the end of the old system and the advent of a new, Western, political logic that prescribes majority rule.

�It would be wise for Hariri to let this government rule for a year and a half, and then reappear in 2013,� Sensenig-Dabous said. �I can see a lot of dissatisfaction in Lebanon with a Hizbullah-led government.�

Shehadi of Chatham House agreed that at this point Hariri may be better off outside the government when the STL publicizes the indictments, �because he won�t be under pressure to handle it.�

He added that �sitting it out� in the opposition until the 2013 elections may bring him back stronger, as was the case with his father, Rafik, who was ousted as prime minister in 1998 only to return with a larger majority in the elections of 2000.

�The 2013 elections will be payback time,� Shehadi said. �Lebanon is not a country where you can have a coup d�etat. The constitution is so complicated that it prevents any faction from monopolizing power. The army is always kept in check.� �