Mikati’s Achilles Heel: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

By Seraina Benz

The cards have been reshuffled. On 13 June, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his new government’s cabinet line-up after a five month long political tug-of-war which plunged the country into another period of notorious institutional dysfunction. Dominated by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies, Mikati’s cabinet has come under the magnifying glass of the international community as it prepares to meet its biggest challenge in the midst of regional turmoil: the formulation of a unified policy on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which has been investigating the murder of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri since 2009. 

The STL has already proven to be the stumbling block of Saad Hariri’s government. With fierce opposition from Hezbollah, whose members are among the main suspects, this task is leading Mikati’s hazardous tightrope walk between the country’s polarised domestic politics and its seemingly inescapable international obligations.

Protracted disputes over the distribution of the government’s most prestigious portfolios among Lebanon’s sects have delayed the cabinet formation process. Finally, it has given rise to a 30-man administration that has conceded a majority of 18 seats to Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition. The remaining minority of 12 portfolios is held by ministers associated with Prime Minister Mikati, President Michel Suleiman and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who form a parliamentary bloc large enough to oppose March 8’s predominant position. Hezbollah’s efforts to keep a low profile by settling for two relatively insignificant ministry seats, including the Ministry of Agriculture, have been a weak disguise for the party’s domineering sway in the cabinet structure.  Slammed by the Sunni-led March 14 opposition as a “charade”, celebrated by Iran and welcomed by Syria, the government has been firmly placed in the Iranian-Syrian camp. Mikati’s endeavours to present his cabinet as a unity government enjoying cross-sectarian support in a highly divided political landscape have been widely undermined. Lebanon’s geopolitical realignment has tied an indissoluble knot between the legitimacy of its newly born government and the hollow prestige of the floundering Syrian regime, which was quick to position itself as having taken a major part in the key cabinet decisions in order reassert its political clout in Lebanon.

Early challenges have been coming hard and fast. The requirement of drafting a government policy, including a clause on the STL, within 30 days of the cabinet’s announcement has entailed another round of political haggling with Hezbollah, who remain adamant about cutting all ties with the STL. At the same time, the tribunal has confirmed its first long-awaited, highly dreaded indictment on 30 June. Although the indictment remains under seal, the Lebanese media has accused four Hezbollah members of involvement in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri.

The 30 June also coincided with the government’s submission of the final draft of its policy statement that deliberately adopted a stance of ambivalent vagueness towards its relationship with the STL: “Our government respects international resolutions, thus it is keen to reveal and expose the truth regarding the crime of the assassination of martyr Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and his companions. The government will follow the path of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which was initially established to achieve righteousness and justice, without politicization or revenge, and without any negative impact on Lebanon’s stability, unity and civil peace”. While catering to the international community’s demands, the statement’s wording leaves a backdoor open for the government to take a quick exit from its ties with the tribunal if Lebanon’s stability is considered to be at stake, overruling the cause of justice.

This loophole might come in handy, as civil unrest is exactly what Lebanon seems to be headed for. After Hezbollah adopted a stance of belligerent sabre-rattling by threatening to "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest one of its members, the militia is now opting for open defiance by denouncing the tribunal as an American-Israeli conspiracy against the resistance and invalidating the court’s indictments: “No Lebanese government will be able to carry out any arrests whether in 30 days, 30 years or even 300 years”. The March 14 coalition, which has hailed the indictments as a milestone in Lebanese history, has taken up Hezbollah’s gauntlet as it escalated the war of words between the two rival camps by calling on the government to step down if it fails to commit to the STL. Determined to make the STL the centre point of its opposition strategy, March 14 made a daring move stepping up its rhetoric by threatening “to topple the government, which came as a result of a coup”.

What hangs in the balance now is Mikati’s ability to weather the storm the tribunal’s indictments have unleashed. Facing the obligation not only to serve out arrest warrants to the accused within 30 days of the indictments but also to pay the government’s annual dues to the tribunal, Mikati is squeezed between Hezbollah’s demands, the prospect of an enraged Sunni public opinion and an alarmed international community which has repeatedly been urging the Lebanese government to live up to its international obligations. Due to its affiliation with the Syrian regime, that has been at loggerheads with the international community since March 2011 over the crushing of its popular uprising, Lebanon’s government has not only been tied to a sinking ship but has also become the object of international scrutiny. If disappointed, the international community might move to pressure and isolate the country. Democratic consensus-built compromise has become a far-fetched absurdity for Mikati who has to juggle with on the one hand March 8’s controlling two thirds, Hezbollah’s military strength combined with a collapsing allied regime and on the other hand March 14’s call for justice and the international community’s vigilant eye. Mikati is set on a collision course - it just remains to be seen with whom.


Seraina Benz holds an MA in International Relations from King's College London. Her main research interests revolve around Lebanese politics and the Lebanese-Israeli conflict. She is currently based in Geneva. 


7 July 2011


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