Dark Mode
Tuesday, 23 April 2024
Hezbollah’s offer to Najib Mikati
Sami Moubayed

The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has not met since October 2021. Political parties refuse to convene, objecting to the continuation of judge Tarek Bitar at his job as lead investigator in the Beirut port probe of August 2020, which killed over 220 people and tore down half the city. Bitar has famously and courageously taken on the country’s entire political elite, summoning top politicians to court on the charge of “criminal negligence.” The list of accused covers the entire political spectrum and it includes ex-Prime Minister Hassan Diab (protégé of Gibran Bassil), ex-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk (protégé of Saad al-Hariri), ex-public works minister Yusuf Finianos (protégé of Suleiman Frangieh), and former ministers Ghazi Zeiter and Ali Hasan Khalil (members of the Amal Movement and allies of Hezbollah). It’s a cross-sectarian list of Sunnis, Shiites, and Maronite Christians, explaining why everybody is unhappy with Tarek Bitar and wants him removed.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is particularly upset, given that two of the accused are part of his inner circle (Zueiter and Khalil). Not only has Bitar accused them of “criminal negligence,” but he has also issued an arrest warrant for Khalil, striking a raw nerve within the Shiite community. Last October, supporters of Amal and Hezbollah demonstrated in Tayyouneh, at the Ayn al-Rummaneh neighborhood where the Lebanese civil war started back in 1975. They were demanding the removal of Judge Bitar when unknown gunmen (believed to be members of Samir Gagegea’s Lebanese Forces) opened fire at them, killing six Shiites. That case remains open and largely unresolved, with Amal and Hezbollah demanding justice for their dead while the Lebanese Forces insists that Gagegea will only accepted to be interrogated over the violence if a similar warrant is issued for Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah.

Politically, Najib Mikati has nothing to do with the Beirut port explosion since he was out of office when it happened on 4 August 2020. None of his party members (known as the Azm Movement) were members in the Diab government, yet he finds himself obliged to carry its burden, as repeated legal cases have been made for the dismissal of Bitar since he became premier last September. A previous judge, Fadi Sawwan, had bene removed from the probe by the very same politicians now under legal scrutiny, and they believe that they can bring down Bitar in similar fashion. They have tried distracting the probe by referring the accused to a higher court away from Bitar’s jurisdiction, which has never met and never taken a binding-decision in its life.

Hezbollah’s offer

Mikati is undoubtedly sympathetic with the victims of the port explosion, yet he realizes that in order for him to stay in power, he needs to be on good terms with the political parties that are asking for Bitar’s removal, mainly Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement of Gibran Basil and President Michel Aoun. Collectively, they hold 15 out of 33 seats in his government and should they decide to collectively resign, then that would bring down his cabinet with a breeze.

Before the Christmas holidays, Hezbollah and Amal made an offer to the Prime Minister. They would agree for the cabinet to re-convene in exchange for a decree stripping Bitar of his duties. Mikati badly needs a cabinet session—and more—in order to settle a score of unfinished business related to upcoming parliamentary elections, talks with the IMF, Covid-19, and resumption of maritime talks with Israel. The most pressing of his demands is the stalled talks with the IMF, which he hopes, will secure a much needed $9-10 billion USD loan for Lebanon. His cabinet had inherited a sharp shortage of American dollars from the Diab government, along with a financial meltdown that has destroyed the country’s once thriving banking sector.  

Mikati’s difficult position

Will Mikati take up Hezbollah and Amal’s offer? Or a better question might be: can he accept it? Dismissing Bitar would ruin Mikati in the eyes of the Lebanese people, who are hailing the 48-year-old judge as a national hero. Keeping him at his post, however, means no cabinet sessions and possibly, no cabinet altogether. When accepting office in September 2021, Mikati conditioned that he stays in power for what remains of Michel Aoun’s presidency, up to October 2022 and beyond. He made it clear that he won’t be an interim prime minister charged solely with supervising early parliamentary elections, now fixed for 27 March 2022.

His cabinet took off with a bumpy start, due to controversial statements made by Information Minister George Qordahi, which triggered a boycott of Lebanon by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Qordahi was criticized for pro-Houthi remarks made on al-Jazeera TV, and under immense pressure, was forced to step down on 3 December. That did not solve the crisis and Lebanon remains at daggers-end with Riyadh, whose leader consider the premier as too weak to stand up to Hezbollah influence.

Mikati is no opponent of Saudi Arabia but finds himself facing the impossible task of walking the tightrope between Riyadh and Tehran. Neither the Saudis are making that it easy for him, and nor is Hezbollah. Shortly after the crisis erupted with George Qordahi, his foreign minister Abdullah Bou Habib said: “If they want the head of Hezbollah, we, as Lebanon, cannot give it to them.” He added that Hezbollah was a main component of Lebanese politics and denied claims that it was practicing any hegemony over Lebanon.

This month, however, Mikati was forced to distance himself from Hezbollah after its secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah delivered gave a fiery speech on 3 January addressing Saudi King Salman, saying: “Your highness the king, the terrorist is (the side) that exported ISIS ideology to the world and they are you.”

This time, Mikati could no longer mince his words or stand neutral, firing back at Hezbollah for the first time since September: “For God’s sake, have mercy on Lebanon and the Lebanese and stop the hateful sectarian and political rhetoric.” He quickly added: “Nasrallah’s comments do neither represent the Lebanese government nor the majority of Lebanese.”

This most recent standoff remains ripe and open to all possibilities. Hezbollah media outlets are trashing the premier, accusing him of failing to stand up for them against repeated Saudi criticism. If Mikati is unable to solve the snowballing crisis with Hezbollah, then chances are that they will soon back out on his government, which will automatically lead to its downfall. Otherwise, he still has the option of swallowing his pride, retracting his comments, and accepting Hezbollah’s offer. That would require the dismissal of Tarek Bitar in exchange for Hezbollah and Amal accepting to remain part of the government and to sign off a cabinet session after a three month freeze on its activity.

BY: Sami Moubayed