A Day of Rage in Lebanon

Back on January 12, the government of Lebanon collapsed, because Hezbollah threw a fit over the United Nations investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri back in 2005.  The boys from Hezbollah couldn’t help but notice the investigators were following them around and peering at them through magnifying glasses.

Hezbollah is back, and a new government has been stitched together, headed up by Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati.  Mikati is a polished and urbane telecom billionaire who has studied at Harvard.  He headed up an interim government for a few months after the Hariri assassination, and made a point of pledging that heads would roll in the state security apparatus over the Prime Minister’s death.  (Since this is Lebanon, it should be pointed out that “heads would roll” was meant in a figurative sense.)

Mikati has the most important qualification for the Prime Minister’s office: he’s a Sunni Muslim, born in the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.  That’s not just a political reality – it’s a statutory requirement for the post.

Nevertheless, Lebanese Sunni Muslims have erupted in angry protests, declaring a “day of rage.”  Streets have been blocked, tires have been burned, a few dozen injuries were reported, and an al-Jazeera satellite truck has been set on fire.

What’s the big deal?  Well, Mikati is widely viewed as a creature of the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah, which backed his candidacy… and the Prime Minister he’s replacing is Saad Hariri, son of the murdered Rafik.  The new PM is also viewed skeptically by Washington, which officially supported Hariri, while Mikati’s Hezbollah backers take their marching orders from Iran.  The Reuters news agency reports Hariri supporters are calling the dissolution and re-creation of the government “an attempt to bring Lebanon into the Persian sphere.”

For his part, Mikati talks up his credentials as a moderate, telling the BBC, “I am always at equal distance from everybody. My objective is the interest of Lebanon and the interest of the nation, the international security of Lebanon and especially to have a good relationship with the international community.” 

Hezbollah wants the new government to stop cooperating with the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of Rafik Hariri, which would further enrage his son’s supporters, and make “a good relationship with the international community” rather unlikely.  Mikati is expected to comply with Hezbollah’s desire to spurn the tribunals, which will position this wealthy international businessman as the executor of a policy that will cut Lebanon off from the world.  There is no “moderate” way to protect terrorists from facing international justice.

Lebanon is a tortured land of factional politics and international conflict by proxy.  Coalition governments can be dominated by skillful players, when the old house of cards collapses.  In this case, Hezbollah is dealing the cards, and there is every reason to distrust the king they just played.