Mikati’s critical mission in Lebanon

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has become a central issue in the minds of the Lebanese, implicated in power conflicts among Lebanon’s major religious groups. Can Prime Minister-designate Najib Makati assume a conciliatory role and pull the country out of crisis?
Rudy Sassine
20 April 2011

With the March 14 alliance refusing to join the government of prime minister-designated Najib Mikati, Hezbollah is expected to use its influence to lobby for a decision that ends the agreement with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Yet, the breakdown of the Hariri government following the resignation of the March 8 ministers does not suggest an emergence of a new balance of power favourable to Hezbollah.  It remains to be seen in the current foggy situation of Lebanon’s politics to which extent Najib Mikati, a person presenting himself as a moderate independent, will have the leverage to play a conciliatory role and pull the country out of crisis. What is sure is that the prospects of a fair settlement between the conflicting parties can be largely ensured only through a change in popular perceptions towards some key issues.

The system of proportional allocation of political posts among the Lebanese religious communities that continues to present one of the major impediments against the formation of a new government, has recently been challenged by a group of demonstrators who used to assemble each Sunday to rally support for their call to abolish the ‘confessional system’.

This confessional system, dating back to the early days of Lebanon’s independence in 1943, has failed to delineate the limits of sectarian leverage that continue to play out even in the lowest strata of Lebanon’ economic and social structure. Rather than just guaranteeing the political representation of major religious groups, the system has allowed each leader to provide sectarian cover for his political deeds, thus making any reevaluation of his performance a threat directed against the sect he supposedly represents.  It is hard to comprehend how such a flawed model of governance could have survived for so long the setbacks it has proliferated in terms of  political deadlock, high economics costs and social unrest.

While the Taif constitution calls for the establishment of  a commission  to study ways to abolish political confessionalism  in Lebanon, all reform campaigns hitherto have fallen on deaf ears, with civil society, the political parties and the professional organizations still not finding a common platform from which to start  discussing the core components: what should be reformed? what should be maintained? and how can we move towards a modern and  progressive system, such as a bicameral legislature?

Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Makati is eagerly awaited by those who expect him to form a government able to take measures to implement reforms already planned and agreed upon with the help of donor countries and international organizations. Contrary to the early predictions of the March 14 alliance together with those of the  American administration, American-educated Mikati, a billionaire with international connections, has so far taken no steps that indicate he is a puppet in the hands of Hezbollah or Syria, despite his reportedly close relations with the Assad family. His successful record as a former consensual prime minister suggests that he enjoys a great deal of leverage, at least over who might challenge him to take decisions deemed unfavourable to the Sunni community he represents.

Opinion polling designed to discover people’s perceptions toward the Special Tribunal has come up with some remarkable responses but, with the exception of the Pechter study, fail to present conclusive policy recommendations. According to David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a co-founder of the Pechter Middle East Polls, not only does the majority of the Shi’a community consider the tribunal to be unfair, but 55% of Christians share the same view, which suggests that Lebanon might become a losing bet in American foreign policy. The  role of the Christian community in Lebanon may well be decisive, if it has made a seismic political shift, abandoning its traditional pro-western political positioning to join the ranks supporting the Syrian and Iranian standpoint. Interestingly enough, this presents General Michel Aoun, the Christian ally of Hezbollah and Syria, with a golden opportunity to affirm his strategic choices. Aoun has already began to question the logic behind the persistence of backing an already tainted tribunal, and one that has cost Lebanon and the Christian community considerable damage since 2005.

Further proof that the Tribunal has become a central issue in the minds of the Lebanese comes from a study released by Information International, a Lebanon-based research and polling organization. In an effort to advance arguments based on changing perceptions, the research firm found that 46% of the Lebanese say they will only take a position on the tribunal when they see the nature and are assured of the credibility of the evidence that is brought to it once the indictment has been made public.

Though a third poll conducted by the International Peace Institute  places greater emphasis on the importance of justice by affirming that 60 percent of  the Lebanese peoplewant to move forward towards justice regardless of the consequences”, it is clear that the tribunal has become a double edged sword; it could either give credit to the March 14 alliance should the indictment is released with strong evidence against Hezbollah, or it could otherwise backfire with more support for Hezbollah and rejection of American interference. In the meantime, Mikati would do well to continue to reconcile differences with the hope of rallying support for his own settlement agenda.

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