Thursday, February 17, 2011

Najib Mikati: What might have been

While the March 14 coalition used the sixth anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination to reiterate its refusal to join the government being formed by Najib Mikati, you have to wonder if the former majority approached the matter in an optimal way.

Hezbollah and the Aounists have refused to grant March 14 a blocking third in a new government, because this would permit Saad Hariri to defeat a cabinet vote to end the agreement signed with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But the tensions generated by Hezbollah’s and Michel Aoun’s decision to deny March 14 veto power (when they received veto power in two March 14-led governments) could have been used more profitably by the former majority.

On the second day of presidential consultations to name a new prime minister, the former Minister Suleiman Franjieh announced that he would agree to concede a blocking third to March 14 in a Mikati government. Allegedly, Franjieh had not received Syrian approval for his proposal, and the statement was viewed as an effort to draw March 14 into negotiations that would have legitimized Mikati.

March 14 refused to be drawn in, on the grounds that Mikati was the façade of a Hezbollah coup. Yet the coalition seemed to contradict itself when the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, and former President Amin Gemayel met with Mikati to expose their requirements for participation – namely the prime minister-elect’s stance on the special tribunal and Hezbollah’s weapons. Meanwhile, Hariri had left Beirut for Paris, indicating, intentionally or not, that he was noncommittal toward the feelers being put out to Mikati.

Another approach might have been more fruitful. When Taha Mikati visited Hariri before consultations to name a new prime minister, he asked that Hariri back his brother Najib. Hariri, angry with what he deemed to be the Mikatis’ treachery, refused. But by then it was a foregone conclusion that Najib Mikati would be asked to form a government. Hariri perhaps would have done better to host Najib, call in the media, and show himself to be the patron of a Mikati government because, he might have stated, he knew the future prime minister-elect would defend the special tribunal. Hariri could have gone further to declare that he would insist on veto power for March 14 in the government, because the breakdown of seats in Parliament and the precedent set by governments past, justified the demand.

This would have put Mikati in a difficult position. By picking a fight over veto power, and borrowing Franjieh’s statement as validation, Hariri would have imposed on the prime minister-elect a choice between forming a government of national unity or bowing to Hezbollah’s dictates and losing Hariri’s blessing. Conceivably, Mikati would have had no choice but to refuse to surrender veto power to March 14; or he might have explored an alternative distribution of cabinet shares, allowing March 14 to collaborate with President Michel Suleiman, who has no desire to fall under Hezbollah’s and Aoun’s sway. In that way March 14 could have created openings to prevent the new majority from taking over the system.

Either way, this scheme would have allowed March 14 to heighten the contradictions between Mikati and Hezbollah and Aoun, while buying time for the special tribunal to move ahead in confirming the draft indictments prepared by the prosecution. And had Mikati failed to make headway because of pressures from Hezbollah and Aoun, he would have burned himself politically from the outset. March 14 would have been able to then pull out of the cabinet formation process, but with more justification than today. Mikati’s negligible room to maneuver would have focused a brighter light on the fact that to undermine the tribunal, Hezbollah and Aoun were willing to scuttle an accord over a government of national consensus.

Sometimes even a tactical gain can have a strong repercussions. Last week Syria urged Mikati to try once again to put together a national-unity government. This came after an acrimonious meeting in Aleppo between the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Syria’s President Bashar Assad. The Turks are said to be unhappy with Hariri’s isolation and evidently, like the Qataris, are uneasy with the prospect that a Lebanese government backed by Syria will soon confront the international community over the special tribunal.

The Syrians may be thinking of other prospective challenges as well. Assad must be wary of how the ouster of two Arab autocrats might affect his own rule, amid protests throughout the Middle East. His vulnerability regionally and internationally may be exacerbated if Syrian officials are named in the special tribunal’s indictment. And the last thing Assad wants, with all that going on, is to be perceived in the Arab world as siding against Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Had Hariri and March 14 made a push for veto power, it is possible that Syria would have compromised somewhere and sought to bargain with the former majority. There was no certainty in this, but by addressing the government formation process differently, March 14 might have produced exploitable opportunities. After all, the essence of Saad Hariri’s strategy these past months has been to use the tribunal as leverage to negotiate with Syria and Hezbollah and win concessions that, he believes, might strengthen Lebanese sovereignty.

Today March 14 has taken on a double-or-nothing wager. It may yet succeed, but consenting to the transfer of state powers to Hezbollah and Aoun, without first having tried more seriously to prevent this outcome, is risky. Mikati’s government, when or if it is formed, will doubtless struggle. But for it to fall will require a tremendous amount of domestic strain, and the Lebanese will suffer as a consequence.

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