This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 27/01/2011
Despite the talk of a “coup” circulating in recent days in March 14’s ranks, Saad Hariri and his allies must take the measure of where they stand, beyond the slogans. Indeed, Syria and Hezbollah have made a major step forward in reversing the gains of 2005, when Syria removed its army from Lebanon and, for a moment, Lebanon’s unaccountable security chiefs faced the rule of law. But March 14 needs to take a deep breath and coldly assess what happened.
The real “coup” was not the appointment of Najib Mikati to form a new government; it was Hezbollah’s ability, with Syrian acquiescence, to turn Walid Jumblatt against the March 14-led majority. There are interesting ingredients in this reversal that have to do with the complicated dynamics of the Syrian-Iranian relationship.
Last week it seemed that Hezbollah and Michel Aoun had made a decision not only to prevent Hariri’s return as prime minister, but also to cripple him politically. Their calculation was that if Hariri came back, he would be able to further delay a Lebanese decision to sever relations with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Aoun sought to bring in Omar Karami. But the former prime minister would have been too bitter a pill to swallow for everyone, and Syria intervened with a bait and switch, replacing Karami with the more palatable Mikati.
The shoddy way Mikati was presented had to do with Hezbollah’s haste to get a government in quickly, to cut ties with the tribunal. On Sunday, Aoun and Nasrallah hinted that Karami was out (since he could not have won a vote against Hariri). However, the cursory way Aoun mentioned Mikati, and the fact that Nasrallah did not, may have indicated that neither was overwhelmed with the choice. Could it be that Syria’s imposition of Mikati, and the subsequent offer by Syria’s ally Suleiman Franjieh that March 14 take the blocking third in a Mikati government, denied them the chance to eliminate Hariri? It’s instructive that Syria’s allies in Beirut were explaining that Damascus did not want to repeat the mistake of Emile Lahoud’s extension.
What are the options for Hariri? The former prime minister has said that he would not join a government “named by Hezbollah.” And there are growing signs that he may carry through on this, even as his bloc pursues an internal debate on participation. If so, this might be mistake.
There are two schools of thought: that March 14 should stay outside of the government, denying it Sunni legitimacy and compelling Mikati to form a cabinet of “one color.” This cabinet will take a contentious decision on the Special Tribunal, incensing both the Sunnis and the international community, eroding what tenuous credibility Mikati has. Consequently, the government will not last, forcing Syria and Hezbollah to negotiate once again with a reinvigorated Hariri.
That may happen, but recent events suggest that relying on this scenario is risky. The rioting on Monday was both good and bad for Hariri. It showed that the Sunnis are angry, and that their anger might spin out of control, therefore it is a bad idea to push too harshly against Hariri and the tribunal. But the scenes of violence also made many Lebanese worry that they were on the cusp of sectarian warfare. And for better or worse, by default many will now identify Mikati with stability.
Unfortunately for Hariri, and his Sunni legitimacy notwithstanding, any successful strategy to undermine a Mikati government would require feeding off ambient insecurity, much like Hezbollah has done in the past. But that is not really Hariri’s way.
If Hariri participates in the government, or just in talks to establish one, this may open up opportunities. In light of Hezbollah’s alacrity to rid itself of the Special Tribunal, Franjieh made his blocking third proposal to March 14 without conditions. Damascus may not have endorsed this, but Hariri should seize the offer anyway. It is doubtful that Syria seeks Hariri’s political disappearance. For as long as the former prime minister retains clout as the dominant Sunni, Damascus will ensure that it can continue playing him off against Hezbollah.
If Hariri’s participation is so vital to the new government, then this gives him latitude to impose conditions. The minimal demand of March 14 must be the blocking third. Much bargaining lies ahead, despite Franjieh’s statement, but negotiations would buy time for confirmation of the tribunal indictment. And if Hariri does not get what he wants, he can always pull out and place the onus of failure on Mikati.
Hariri can also demand that the break with the tribunal not be mentioned in the cabinet statement, delegitimizing such a move from the start. Mikati may support this, even if he has probably agreed to end Beirut’s collaboration with the institution. If March 14 gets the blocking third, it could obstruct a vote in the cabinet to annul the protocol with the Special Tribunal (which is why Hezbollah and Syria are liable not to surrender that advantage to Hariri). Whatever happens, and more cynically, if Mikati goes ahead with the divorce anyway, Hariri would be giving him rope with which to hang himself.
There are other advantages in participating in a Mikati government with a blocking third. There will be occasions for March 14 to ally itself on important issues with President Michel Sleiman, and even Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader is keen, for electoral reasons, to regain Sunni favor after his decision last week to vote against Hariri.
All eyes will be on Saudi Arabia’s reaction. The Saudis have spent two years sponsoring a Syrian comeback to Lebanon, on the assumption that better Syria leading in Beirut than Iran. There may be those in the kingdom who regard the pro-Syrian Mikati as fulfilling that logic. Hariri will remain the Sunnis’ leader, but he will also be careful not to maneuver outside the parameters set by the previous Syrian-Saudi dialogue. Ultimately Mikati is the man in the hot seat today, so entering the government could emerge as Hariri’s optimal way of exploiting what will surely be its impossible contradictions.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).