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    Middle East
     Feb 15, 2011


Why Hariri no longer matters
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Incoming Lebanese Prime Minister Najib al-Mikati is probably thrilled by the more than two weeks of demonstrations in Egypt that saw the ouster of long-serving president Hosni Mubarak.

They have given him the chance to sit back and quietly consult with different politicians with the aim of creating a new government by February 18. There are no television networks banging on his door, no journalists hiding in the bushes around his home in Beirut, and no Western diplomats breathing down his neck to 

 
make sure Hezbollah doesn't become too powerful in the next cabinet.

Mikati, after all, was brought to power in January with the direct blessing of the once called "Hezbollah-backed opposition". That opposition, now proudly calling itself "the Hezbollah-led majority", had collectively withdrawn its 11 ministers from the pro-Western government of his predecessor, Saad al-Hariri.

The prime reason was Hariri's refusal to abide by the Syrian-Saudi Initiative, which called on him to distance Lebanon from the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL), charged with investigating the 2005 murder of his father, ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. Mikati's position on the STL will probably make or break his upcoming premiership, given that today, it is the only thing that matters in the complex world of Beirut politics.

That court, as far as the Syrians, the Saudis, Hezbollah and the Iranians were concerned, was a miserable excuse for international justice, abused by various Lebanese politicians who lied under oath during its investigations. The fact that it took these "false witnesses" seriously, using them to reach legal conclusions, refused to interrogate any Israeli official in the Hariri murder, and has had large chunks of its findings "leaked" to the international press leaves little room for doubt that the court is not to be trusted, says Hezbollah.

What makes things worse is that the STL is expected to soon issue indictments blaming senior members of Hezbollah in the Hariri affair after having failed to blame it on the Syrians since 2005. If Mikati wants full-fledge Hezbollah support, he has been told that he needs to turn his back on the STL and distance his country from it, politically, legally and financially.

Among other things, Hezbollah wants him to withdraw the four Lebanese judges from the STL and cancel the 49% Lebanese funding of the court's treasury, which accounts to roughly US$32 million. To date, the new prime minister has refused to commit, in writing, to such a condition but has pledged to hammer out a cabinet policy statement that pledges to "protect and embrace" the arms of Hezbollah.

Mikati, however, recently commented, "My nomination [to the premiership] by Hezbollah doesn't make me committed to any political stance other than protecting the resistance." Hariri, still sulking at being ejected with little ceremony or respect in January, is trying to bargain with Mikati: if you refuse to commit on the STL, we will join your upcoming government. As things look today, however, Mikati is uninterested in Hariri's offer.

To make life easier for Mikati, Hezbollah has announced that it wants no seats in the cabinet, countering all Western accusations that it had "hijacked" the upcoming government. The March 14 Alliance of Hariri has also announced that it will not be joining the new cabinet - for reasons very different from those of Hezbollah.

Its members cannot digest the reality that their leader is no longer prime minister and refuse to work with anybody but him. When he was first confirmed last January, March 14 stalwarts took to the streets in Mikati's native Tripoli, rioting, destroying public property, and burning posters of the new prime minister. If any member of March 14 wants to join the new Mikati government, he/she would be doing so in their private capacities and not as members of the Hariri alliance.

For his part, Mikati is looking at a 24- or 30-member government, dividing seats along confessional lines, as customarily done in Lebanon. It will be based along the following lines: five seats for the Sunnis, five for the Shi'ites, five for the Maronites, three for Catholics, two for Greek Orthodox, two for the Druze and two for the Armenians.

The Amal movement, staunch Hezbollah allies, will be getting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Energy while the ex-minister and Maronite chief Suleiman Franjiyeh might be getting the Ministry of Health. The Sunnis will get the Ministry of Finance, which will certainly go to Mohammad al-Safadi, the Tripoli member of parliament and businessman who voted for Mikati during cabinet formation consultations last January.

Tammam Salam, scion of a leading Beiruti Sunni political family, will get either the Ministry of Education or Higher Education. He is the son of six-time prime minister Saeb Salam, one of the founders of Lebanese independence who headed the Sunni community before Rafik al-Hariri surfaced in the early 1990s.

Another prominent Sunni earmarked for cabinet post is Laila al-Solh, a former minister and daughter of Riad al-Solh, another co-founder of the Lebanese Republic and heavyweight name in the pre-Hariri Sunni community of Lebanon. Solh's sister is married to Saudi King Abdullah's brother Prince Talal and is the mother of billionaire Saudi businessman, Alwaleed Bin Talal.

Mikati's choice of both Solh and Salam is a clear indicator that he is trying to reverse the trend in the Sunni community, recreating Sunni notables that are strongly present in Lebanon's history who faded away with rise of the Hariri empire since the 1990s. With Salam and Sulh onboard, who needs Hariri?

The sticking point in the upcoming formation lies with Hezbollah's ally, General Michel Aoun, who is demanding no less than 10 seats in the cabinet. He is asking for all Christian seats once held by Hariri's Future Movement and its two allies, the Lebanese Forces of Samir Gagea and Phalange Party of ex-president Amin Gemayel.

The Phalange is still toying with the idea of joining the Mikati cabinet, regardless of March 14's position, arguing that no cabinet should be formed without representation of a party that for long has mirrored the Christian identity of Lebanon. President Gemayel has his eyes set on the Ministry of Education for the Phalange, although his son Sami, a member of parliament firmly allied with Hariri, prefers boycotting the Mikati government.

Aoun, however, is arguing that the pro-Western Phalange Party is now history and should be given nothing in the new government, because they no longer represent the Maronite Christian community. Among other things, Aoun is demanding the powerful portfolios of Justice, Interior and Telecommunications, three positions that are backed by Hezbollah.

He wants to make his ally Shakib Qartabawi, the ex-president of the Bar Association, minister of justice, promising that once in office he would take all necessary measures against the STL.

Qartabawi, a respected legal mind and a non-sectarian politician, has already signaled that if he becomes minister he would immediately recall Lebanese judges from the STL. Telecommunications, a vital job because under it falls jurisdiction over Hezbollah's telephone network, needs to be given to a trusted Hezbollah ally, he argues.

Aoun is also asking that his son-in-law Gibran Bassil be made minister of interior, a request that has flatly been rejected by President Michel Suleiman, who wants to name independent Ministers of Justice and Defense. Not only does Aoun refuse such a condition but is also asking that Suleiman gets to name three, rather than five ministers, with only one of them being to a "sovereignty post". Talks are still underway between Mikati and Aoun, who recently wrapped up a brief visit to Syria, aimed at accommodating all of the retired general's political demands.

Mikati hopes to finalize all these pending issues within the next week, and meanwhile, the people of Lebanon are holding their breath - and looking elsewhere - towards the popular uprising in Cairo. Mubarak, after all, is a staunch supporter of Saad al-Hariri and his departure could damage Hariri's regional power.

The Lebanese realize that the one thing in common between Hariri, Mubarak, Tunisia's ex-President Zein al-Abidin Ben Ali and Jordan's recently sacked prime minister Samir al-Rifaii, is that they were all pro-American politicians who came to power and were maintained at their posts, thanks to strong US backing over the years.

Hariri has also lost many traditional allies in the region, like Saudi King Abdullah, who is furious with him for turning his back on the Syrian-Saudi Initiative, under urging of US officials during a recent visit by the ex-prime minister to New York and Washington.

Deprived of Saudi and Egyptian support, and with a US administration that is quickly recalculating due to Mubarak's expected collapse, Hariri is in for a difficult 2011, bracing himself to become "leader of the Lebanese opposition".

Monday marks the sixth anniversary of his father's 2005 murder. Usually on February 14, Hariri drums up large demonstrations in downtown Beirut, commemorating the occasion. This time, doubting that he can rally large numbers - which anyhow would look mediocre compared to the masses assembled in Tahrir Square in Cairo - Hariri has already decided to change venue.

Instead of the public space in downtown Beirut, Hariri has announced that he will be holding the commemoration in Biel, an exhibition and leisure center in the Lebanese capital. That in itself speaks volumes about Hariri's diminishing popularity base in Beirut.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, political analyst and Editor-in-Chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Hariri backed wrong horse
Jan 29, '11

Hariri pays the price as Tripoli burns
Jan 27, '11

 

 
 



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