(By Tony Badran)
The reactions from Washington, Paris and Riyadh following Najib Mikati’s designation as prime minister suggest that we are now in a watchful, wait-and-see period. Everyone is keeping a close eye on where Mikati will stand on the key issues, namely the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). However, the prime minister-designate’s recent comments indicate he realizes he is in the hot seat facing both careful international scrutiny as well as pressure from Hezbollah. The US and its allies should ensure his feet are kept to the fire, clearly spelling out the consequences of rubber stamping Hezbollah’s agenda.
It’s been obvious that Mikati’s designation, and the way it came about, was received rather coolly and cautiously by the US, France and Saudi Arabia. At best, it’s been made clear that Mikati is on probation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summarized the prevailing mood: “As we see what this new government does, we will judge it accordingly.” Though, understandably, the US has already begun a broad review of its assistance to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, a State Department press statement made a point of emphasizing the violence and intimidation underpinning Hezbollah’s drive, which culminated in the toppling of Saad Hariri’s government. Tellingly, the statement spelled out two specific demands the US expected Mikati’s government to abide by: preventing any retribution against former government officials, and continued commitment to all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the STL.
The French Foreign Ministry echoed this position, calling on the future government to uphold Lebanon’s international obligations, especially with regard to the STL.
But what about Saudi Arabia? Officially, the kingdom has kept mum after having publicly placed the failure of its mediation effort at the Syrians’ feet. However, the Saudi media has provided enough hints as to where Riyadh stood on the developments in Lebanon.
In his column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed mirrored the two conditions highlighted by the State Department’s statement: “All of us will be watching how Mikati will deal with the state’s obligations toward the international tribunal, which has become legally binding for the government. And everyone will watch how the Mikati government will behave vis-à-vis going after and threatening senior former government officials.”
Hezbollah and Syria had made it rather clear that such retribution against certain opposing figures was a central aspect of their intended coup. Be it the Syrian arrest warrants against Hariri’s closest associates, or the open threats against Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, or the menacing campaigns against key judicial and security figures, Hezbollah and the Syrians never hid their intentions in this regard. Indeed, it was unambiguously understood that the push to bring in Omar Karami as premier was intended to affect precisely this type of complete overhaul of the political scene.
An anonymous diplomat in Beirut told Le Figaro correspondent Georges Malbrunot that Hezbollah’s next step would be a purging campaign, targeting people like Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces, and Chief Prosecutor Said Mirza. The latter in particular had been the target of a relentless campaign by Syria’s allies. Of course, the ISF and Mirza represent Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL.
Mikati’s statements to a number of media outlets in the last 48 hours signaled much reluctance to go ahead with such plans. He was at pains to show that he had no interest in antagonizing the US and the international community, pleading to be given a chance to prove himself, all while trying to craft prudent language when addressing the central issue of the STL.
Hezbollah and its allies have made clear that they intend to include a clause in the next government’s policy statement ending Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL. Mikati’s language was carefully worded: “I am not going to make any move against the tribunal without full Lebanese consensus.” Clearly, no such consensus exists. However, it remains to be seen what Mikati will do should Hezbollah and its allies decide to go all the way and push for a vote on the matter in the new cabinet (whose nature and makeup are still unclear).
All this suggests keen awareness on Mikati’s part of his vulnerability domestically, regionally and internationally.
Take for instance, what the editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat wrote regarding Mikati’s standing with Saudi Arabia: “We don’t know if Mikati has arranged his affairs in the Gulf, especially since there are states that didn’t approve the manner in which he was designated. More importantly, there is no confirmation of a Saudi consent.”
Aside from domestic political and communal pressure, as an international tycoon Mikati is also personally susceptible to financial pressure should he submit to Hezbollah’s and Syria’s writ on the STL. If he should sign off on the abrogation of Lebanon’s commitments to UN Security Council resolutions, Lebanon’s international standing would change dramatically.
Mikati has said he recognizes that Lebanon has no interest in such a disastrous confrontation with the international community, and the US in particular, and that he himself has no intention of leading Lebanon in that direction.
The premier-designate has begged to be given a chance to prove himself. However, those who voted him into office have other ideas and priorities, which they will surely try to impose on him and the rest of the country. During this probationary period, it would behoove the US and its allies to articulate clearly and forcefully what the implications of such a decision would be.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.