Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati—who was selected by Hezbollah as the country’s premier—has resigned, bringing his cabinet and the government with him.
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.
It’s rather extraordinary that it hasn’t already started since Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis are currently killing each other just across the border in Syria.
And now Lebanon is without a government—again.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Since Hezbollah picked the prime minister, is it any great loss that he’s gone?
Actually, maybe it is. 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—at least according to Reuters—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. What's the point of seizing power in Lebanon if Beirut won’t back Hezbollah’s allies in Tehran and Damascus?
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. Some of my Lebanese sources and friends said that’s exactly what he wants me to think, but others I trust and know just as well told me he is, in fact, quietly aligned with March 14 and is therefore “one of us.”
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. This sort of thing happens. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood knows exactly what to say to Westerners to trick them into believing the organization is moderate and democratic. They’re completely and utterly full of it, but that hasn’t stopped an embarrassingly huge number of journalists, analysts, and diplomats from getting fooled by an organization that has always been theocratic and authoritarian.
Najib Mikati, though, is a Sunni while Hezbollah is Shia. Mikati isn’t a Sunni Islamist, either. He’s a businessman, a tycoon. He’s the richest man in the country.
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.
And he wasn’t that great from their point of view.
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.
Hezbollah must have been furious when that came to light. The day that he would resign (or be otherwise removed or even killed) over a conflict with Hezbollah was all but inevitable.
I asked Ed Gabriel what he thinks of Mikati. He’s a former US ambassador to Morocco and the founder of the American Task Force for Lebanon. He’s from the United States, but his family is from Lebanon and he knows everyone over there. He has known Mikati for years. And I trust his judgment.
“He was elected to parliament in Tripoli as an independent allied with March 14,” he says. “He agreed to become prime minister in January 2011 because he wanted to avoid a clash over the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, is the international court set up by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute Hariri’s assassins. The STL is fingering Hezbollah for the crime.
“It was presumed that Mikati had made a tacit agreement to withdraw Lebanese government support for the STL to become prime minister,” Gabriel says, “but Mikati used a clever mechanism to pay Lebanon’s STL obligations for 2011 and 2012. Although he previously had business interests in Syria, Mikati is smart enough to have avoided going to Syria since the outbreak of violence. March 14 seemed willing to accept a Mikati government until the assassination of Wissam El Hassan on October 19, 2012, when they accused the Mikati government of tolerating murderers. Meaningfully, and with the support of Mikati, a Lebanese military court charged Mahmoud Hayek, a Hezbollah security official, on February 1 with the attempted assassination of prominent March 14 politician Boutros Harb. In my opinion, Mikati has proven his skeptics wrong.”
He has indeed proved his skeptics wrong. He also proved Hezbollah wrong since they thought they could use him.
And they couldn’t.
Now the country is without a government. Mikati has called for a “caretaker government” to take over until the next elections are held. Maybe Lebanon will get one and maybe it won’t. Either way, the country is closer now to collapse than it has been at any time since the civil war ended.
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