Between a rock and a hard place; the future of Lebanese premier Miqati and his government

By: Kai Kverme, University of Oslo.

The pressure is increasing on the Lebanese premier these days, and there are two questions of particular concern to him. The first is related to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), set up by the UN to investigate the murder of former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, whereas the second relates to the ongoing crisis in neighboring Syria. For the time being,it is the first that is the most explosive.

No doubt, the question of the STL is the most acute. Lebanon has committed itself to pay 49 percent of the tribunals annual budget, and previous governments honored this commitment. However, when Miqati became premier this summer, after having taken part in the toppling of Saad al-Hariri’s national unity government, the question of the STL was the main source of disagreement between the various parties and groups. While at the time it was not the question of funding which was at the top of the agenda, but rather the question of the so-called false witnesses, Miqati was well aware of the differences on the STL when he agreed to become premier, perhaps hoping to be able to bridge the differences between the parties and groups who formed the new government.

But the attitude from the two main components of the government, Hizballah and Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc, has not changed. If anything, it has hardened. Even before members of Hizballah were accused of being behind the assassination, the party dismissed the STL as politicized, as it implied that Syria was behind the crime. When the German magazine Der Spiegel in May 2009 reported that Hizballah would be accused of having a hand in the assassination, this led the party to intensify its campaign against the Tribunal, peaking last summer when Hizballah’s secretary-general had the whole nation glued to the television as he claimed he would present hard evidence that Israel was the real culprit. As it turned out, no evidence was presented, but rather an array of loosely founded indications that Israel could have had an interest in the murder.

Since then the main focus for Hizballah has been to derail the course of the Tribunal, at the very least to make sure that official Lebanon would not grant it any legitimacy. These considerations led the party to increase its pressure on what they considered to be the “weak link” in al-Hariri’s government, maverick Druze leader Walid Jounblat. When in 2008 Hizballah occupied swats of West Beirut and the surrounding mountains, Jounblat was the main target. The armed men who took to the streets of the capital were not from the party, rather from its allies in Amal and the Syrian National Social Party, but in the mountains it was the elite forces of the party who were commanded out. They did not manage to make Jounblat switch side at the time, but when Hizballah sent their black shirts onto the streets in February this year, they did. A few days later, Jounblat pointed to Miqati as the new premier.

However, Miqati has from the outset adopted the stance that Lebanon should fulfill its international commitments, including the founding of the STL, and the same goes for president Sulayman. Jounblat, who joined the Miqati government, has also stuck to his position that the STL is legitimate and that Lebanon should honor its commitment to it.

However, it is Hizballah and their close allies who constitute the majority in Miqati’s government, and they are more determined than ever to stop the funding. The question is which options Miqati is left with, as it seems highly unlikely that the government would allow him to transfer the matter to the parliament, where there is a majority in favor of continued funding. Until now, both he and Hizballah have refused the talk about a new government, while Michel Aoun and others have talked about replacing Miqati for months.

One could argue that the decision is not in the hands of any of these parties and groups; it is in Damascus the final decision is taken. The Syrian regime is struggling for its survival, and a loyal government in Lebanon is of paramount importance at this point. The question is then, can Hizballah allow itself to face a defeat over the funding of the STL after all the attacks it has mounted on this institution, or will Lebanon embark on yet another trip into the unknown?