A Turning Tide in Lebanon

In an unexpected move, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati has committed $33 million (Lebanon’s total contribution) for the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) established to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Following prolonged stalemate over funding that threatened to bring down his government, Mikati’s decision comes as a harbinger to the turning political tide in Lebanon.

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In an unexpected move, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati has committed $33 million (Lebanon’s total contribution) for the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) established to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Following prolonged stalemate over funding that threatened to bring down his government, Mikati’s decision comes as a harbinger to the turning political tide in Lebanon. Although Hezbollah’s leadership stands determined to confront the STL, it has refrained from adopting the same confrontational approach it once employed successfully against Saad Hariri’s governments; that Hezbollah has contented itself with simply lamenting this decision is a clear indicator that the political environment is changing.

Since its establishment in 2009, the Special Tribunal has been reduced to a flashpoint issue in the tug of war between the March 8 and March 14 alliances. Hezbollah (which leads March 8) has premised its campaign on the conviction that the STL is an American-Zionist plot to cripple resistance against Israel, and has hitherto undermined the March 14 alliance’s weak narratives about STL being a tool for justice and accountability. Particularly, it has cast significant doubt on the reliability of the evidence presented so far—which consists almost entirely of suspects’ phone call patterns, now that initial witness interviews have been discarded as “false witnesses.” The party has even gone so far as to present relatively well-documented footage pointing to an alleged Israeli involvement in Hariri’s assassination in an effort to undercut indictments against the four suspects involved in the plot (who are allegedly members of Hezbollah and presently at large). Investigators at the Hague are legally prevented from commenting and therefore have not responded to these accusations.

The Special Tribunal has also lost popular credibility in Lebanon. Well before the forced resignation of Saad Hariri’s government in January 2011, public opinion polls of the Lebanese public unfavorably viewed the STL: according to a November 2010 study by Lebanon-based poll firm Information International, 59 percent of those surveyed supported either the abrogation of the STL or an amendment to its mandate, while 54 percent believed that that it is politicized. Another poll conducted in November/December 2010 by US-based Pechter Middle East Polls found that 79 percent of Sunnis polled called the tribunal “free and fair,” 85 percent of Shi‘a believed it “very unfair and not free,” and 55 percent of Christians called it “unfair and not free.” Ultimately, the Lebanese public will most likely judge the STL on the basis of whether the verdict is released with strong evidence.

The success of the Hezbollah campaign can be primarily attributed to the actions of the March 14 alliance, and those of its leading party: Hariri’s Future Movement. The coalition’s participation in trade-offs with Hezbollah—one in which it was prepared to make substantial concessions for short-term political gains—seriously weakened the narrative put forward by March 14 that the STL marked the end to “an era of impunity” in Lebanon. Overtures to Syria and Saad Hariri’s exoneration of the Syrian regime in a controversial meeting with President Assad in Damascus in December 2009 furthered widespread views that the STL was nothing more than a political bargaining chip.

In the midst of these ongoing domestic tensions regarding the STL, all eyes are firmly on Syria. Speculation rages over how the fate of the Syrian uprisings will affect Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanon. Although a regime change in Damascus is unlikely to erode the party’s popular base, logistical and military supplies could be obstructed. The Future Movement has tried to capitalize on the crisis—expressing solidarity with uprisings in Syria and voicing support for the opposition—in order to revive its Sunni base and embarrass Syria’s Lebanese allies within March 8.

The members of the March 14 alliance are also trying to use their position outside the government more strategically than in the past—mainly to set Hezbollah and Mikati against each other in hopes of discrediting both, and precipitate the breakdown of the current cabinet. Mikati’s firm stance on the tribunal’s funding (he threatened to resign) despite vehement opposition from Hezbollah reflects the reality that the prime minister ultimately cannot make decisions that run counter to the Sunni mainstream (whose loyalty remains with Hariri). Rather, he must maintain his reputation as a conciliatory figure—a reputation that rests largely on maintaining the promise not to surrender to Hezbollah’s goal of disavowing the tribunal. To commit to Lebanon’s share of the funding, Mikati reverted to an emergency fund that only the prime minister controls.

Additionally, March 8 has burnt valuable political capital in recent months by infighting on economic reform packages and on public policy plans; The discussions of reform toward electricity provision pushed by Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) minister Gebran Bassil turned heated among members of the coalition, and the cabinet’s inability to move ahead with a clear socio-economic reform agenda has also prompted the FPM bloc to threaten resignation—creating dissention within the alliance’s ranks. Several parties—Marada and Tachnag, as well as a minister affiliated with Talal Arslan’s Democratic Party—have criticized the FPM’s boycott of cabinet meetings. Failure to compromise on new minimum wage scales has also created tension with labor unions. In all, the inability to improve vital service-oriented sectors—or even propose viable solutions—has seriously subverted the proclaimed reformist agenda of the March 8 movement.

Despite these changes, the breakdown of the current government is unlikely. Neither Hezbollah nor Aoun’s FPM want to see the government they tirelessly worked toward disintegrate, as it would be very difficult for them to secure a reliable Sunni partner to whom they could entrust Mikati’s position. Furthermore, provoking stalemate by walking out of the government would tarnish the image of the March 8 alliance as a reliable ruling party. Finally, the ability of March 14 to reclaim an offensive strategy does not necessarily translate into concrete political gains. The small numbers at the Future Movement rally on November 27 in Tripoli (the site of some of its most loyal bases) demonstrates that renewed discourse may not be enough.

Rudy Sassine is a freelance journalist and a Research Assistant at the Lebanese Network for Economy and Development. 

This article is reprinted with permission from Sada.  It can be accessed online at: http://carnegieendowment.org/2011/12/15/turning-tide-in-lebanon/89zb © 2011, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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