Lebanese politicians are famous for their ability to construct temporary fixes for the deep problems that have dogged their country.
So, relatively speaking, it wasn't entirely outlandish that the prime minister, billionaire businessman Najib Mikati, reached into the pockets of his own ministry last week to pay the $32 million the Lebanese government owed the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a Hague-based international court set up to try those accused in the 2005 murder of ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Still, it was bold enough to provoke controversy.
Mikati's move was meant to preserve his fractious coalition government, which includes the militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, to which Hariri's four indicted murderers allegedly belong. (All four are at large.) Hezbollah and some of its allies in the government, notably the Christian-oriented Free Patriotic Movement, had warned that they would block the cabinet as a whole from funding the tribunal, claiming it is biased and illegally constituted. Circumventing these objections, Mikati paid the tribunal by dipping into an emergency fund he alone controls.
Writing in the Beirut-based, leftist daily As-Safir, columnist Nasri al-Sayegh criticized Mikati's use of the fund and decried the absurdity and hypocrisy of the situation. He wrote:
The funding scandal is the product of a Lebanese genius that renders falsification legitimate and the impossible possible.
Sayegh wrote that the government itself is “the product of a miraculous marriage” of necessity between Mikati and his allies, on one side, and Hezbollah and its allies on the other -- an alliance that is ultimately unsustainable. As a result, he said, Lebanon had witnessed yet “another chapter titled ‘the brink of the abyss.'" This time the issue was "either the tribunal or the government."
For now, “the battle resulted in both remaining based on the fact that the financing was made from a private government fund, was signed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, blessed by Walid Jumblatt,” a self-described centrist cabinet member, “and disregarded by the rest."
But divisions over the tribunal may continue to rock the government and the country. In coming months, the government must decide whether to renew its protocol agreement with the tribunal even as a trial in absentia likely begins for the four accused. Wrote Sayegh, “The politicians and the exit-seekers are creating temporary settlements that will soon explode."
Columnist Ali Hamadeh of the Lebanese daily An-Nahar was harsher in his criticism of Mikati, writing, “Lebanon’s financing of the tribunal in this underhanded manner as if it were a drug-smuggling deal is not a major achievement." But the bigger problem, he asserted, was that Mikati headed a “cabinet of murderers.”
Hamadeh rejected the argument of some of the prime minister's supporters that Mikati is independent of Syria, which exercises extensive power in Lebanon and supports Hezbollah, and that his funding of the tribunal proves it. The “complete opposite” is true, wrote Hamadeh. He argued:
Had the continuation of the cabinet not been a priority for Hezbollah -- some of its officials are accused of killing Rafik al-Hariri -- and for the regime in Syria -- which is accused of killing more than 5,000 citizens including 280 children -- this exit would not have been devised.
Hamadeh argued that intense international pressure played the crucial role in forcing Hezbollah and its backers in Damascus to go along with Mikati’s funding ploy. He concluded:
Therefore, we tell Prime Minister Mikati: Do not remind the free Lebanese people of the favor of financing the tribunal and do not have the illusion that you are now standing in the right place. Financing is the least of your duties.
The Beirut-based Daily Star bemoaned that it had taken so long to resolve the tribunal funding issue. That was not surprising given that the paper is partially owned by Saad al-Hariri, the son of and successor to the slain prime minister. The younger Hariri was toppled by Hezbollah and its allies in January, largely over the tribunal issue. The paper editorialized:
Leading politicians could have looked ahead and come up with a plan for what to do about this divisive issue. Instead, they left it until the end of the year, and put the entire country on hold as they scrambled to find a face-saving solution for all sides.
Yet such a solution might not have been possible but for the recent change of circumstances for Syria. The regime's harsh reprisals against opposition protests have provoked sanctions and a suspension of Syria's membership in the Arab League. The Syrian regime seeks to avoid further isolation and more uncertainty, while Hezbollah relies on Syria for military and diplomatic support. Wrote columnist Walid Choucair in the London-based Al-Hayat:
The regional agenda is what concerns Hezbollah. Because this takes priority, it is easy for Hezbollah to step away from the error of rejecting tribunal funding and mobilizing its base and the public against it. The price is the survival of the current government, whose resignation would strip the party of the legal cover for its attempt to retain influence on the ground and within Lebanese state institutions, especially security-related ones.
What of the apparent hypocrisy of dropping its adamant opposition to the tribunal? Lebanese politicians of all stripes have swallowed worse. Before the collapse of his government, Saad Hariri himself engaged in extensive and nearly successful negotiations with Hezbollah that would have had him essentially repudiating the tribunal, which he and his supporters have long described as sacred. At the time, his media office defended his efforts as a valiant attempt to save Lebanon from deadlock and potential disaster -- words now being parroted by Hezbollah.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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