Next Premier of Lebanon Tries to Set His Own Coursehttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
BEIRUT — Najib Mikati, a billionaire backed by Hezbollah to become prime minister of Lebanon, promised on Wednesday to forge good relations with the United States and declared that he would not interfere with an international tribunal expected to accuse members of Hezbollah of involvement in the assassination of a former prime minister.
The remarks by Mr. Mikati in an interview were a clear signal of an independent path that he hopes to chart in a country reeling from its worst crisis in years and navigating a new alignment of power in which Syria has emerged again as power broker. Mr. Mikati faces enormous pressure to denounce the tribunal, and his supporters and opponents acknowledge that his ability to hew to that independence will probably define his tenure.
“We cannot afford to have an enemy,” he said.
Genial and engaging, Mr. Mikati, 55, is buffeted by a breathtaking array of influences that embody this Mediterranean country’s fate. Though small and relatively insignificant on its own, Lebanon has long served as an arena for battles far greater than itself, entangling the United States and France, as well as Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region.
The tribunal is the latest incarnation of that contest. Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement, has sought to discredit it, accusing the United States and Israel of wielding the tribunal as a way to frame it in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. When Mr. Hariri’s son, Saad, Mr. Mikati’s predecessor, refused to denounce the tribunal, the movement withdrew its support, forcing the collapse of his 14-month-old unity government and setting off a bitter confrontation.
The United States has insisted that the tribunal proceed unimpeded, as have Hezbollah’s rivals here, many of whom have deemed Mr. Mikati beholden to Hezbollah.
“I am not going to make any move against the tribunal without full Lebanese consensus,” said Mr. Mikati, well known here as a politician and philanthropist.
Asked if Hezbollah would accept such a stance, he replied indignantly: “I am the prime minister and I will decide. If they do not accept, let them not accept.”
Even friends of Mr. Mikati, a former prime minister who made his fortune in telecommunications and ranks as one of the world’s richest men, acknowledge just how formidable his task is. He received crucial support from Hezbollah and its ally, Syria, but his constituency, and even his hometown, encompass their adversaries. He must navigate politics that are rife with charges of betrayal and backstabbing. And the United States, though less vociferously than some expected, has issued a warning.
“I would like to say, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Clinton, for this,’ ” Mr. Mikati said. “You saved me a statement. Don’t prejudge. Wait and see. And I’m looking forward to seeing her.”
Precisely what Mr. Mikati represents has become a subject of fierce debate here.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, dismissed the contention that Mr. Mikati was the movement’s candidate and pointed out that he was chosen by a majority of Parliament. “What we did was normal, and we practiced our constitutional right,” he said.
But Mr. Mikati’s very legitimacy is deeply questioned in a system that rigidly divides the spoils among its various sects: primarily Maronite Catholics (who serve as president), Sunni Muslims (as prime minister) and Shiite Muslims (as Parliament speaker).
Mr. Mikati is a Sunni Muslim, but his support, in the street at least, pales before Mr. Hariri’s, whose movement mobilized supporters in aggressive protests on Tuesday in what amounted to a show of force. Demonstrators in Tripoli, Mr. Mikati’s hometown, tore down his portrait and burned it. Some called him a traitor; others ridiculed him as an agent of Hezbollah.
“He is a Sunni figure, but the way he was nominated discredited this,” said Nouhad Mashnouq, a member of Parliament allied with Mr. Hariri’s bloc. “In one way or another, this government is on the axis of the Syrian-Hezbollah interests.”
In a Tuesday interview on a popular television program, Mr. Mikati declared that he and Mr. Hariri “are one.” The host countered, “Saad Hariri doesn’t want to be one with you.”
Indeed, Mr. Hariri, who complained about “lots of feelings of betrayal” in the negotiations that led to Mr. Mikati’s choice, looked especially glum when Mr. Mikati paid him an eight-minute visit Wednesday. “Not very warm,” Mr. Mikati said, describing the meeting.
In the interview, Mr. Mikati contended that the protests, whose violence seemed to take aback even some of Mr. Hariri’s supporters, paled before the support he enjoyed within the community, whose relative power has diminished over the past decade.
He insisted that his supporters outnumbered the protesters “a thousand times.”
For more than a decade after the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990, the country was effectively governed by a Syrian-Saudi consensus, and an entire political class, including Mr. Mikati and Mr. Hariri’s father, served its interests. Fraying for years, that consensus collapsed with the assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father, and the country is still enduring a bitter, sometimes violent, often chaotic engineering of new rules to govern.
Mr. Mikati long cultivated ties with Syria, which is seen here as wanting to build up an alternative to Mr. Hariri among the country’s Sunni Muslims. Mr. Hariri himself had sought to restore ties with Syria, though the efforts collapsed in negotiations over a possible compromise on the tribunal and its indictments, whose details are expected to be issued in weeks.
Saudi Arabia’s influence has seemed to diminish lately, and a question often asked these days is why it did not intervene more aggressively to protect Mr. Hariri. “Frankly, the Saudis are difficult to decipher,” said a high-ranking official with Mr. Hariri, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Mr. Mikati, meanwhile, said he was “in continuous contact” with Saudi officials.
The most pressing question, though, remains the tribunal. Despite his adamancy, many expect Mr. Mikati to be unable to withstand pressure to denounce it, though he may find a legal mechanism as a way to bring to an end Lebanon’s cooperation with it.
“It is all about the tribunal,” said Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with the leftist newspaper As Safir. “They want him to denounce it and break cooperation with it as soon as possible. It’s a very sensitive and urgent matter. And he will announce just that.”Added the official with Mr. Hariri, “The opposition to that will be monumental.”