to pay Lebanon’s contributions to the STL. The announcement followed intense last minute efforts by the Speaker Nabih Berri to avert Mikati’s resignation and the collapse of the government.
The immediate significance of this decision is that the showdown over the STL has been delayed for at least another year. Quibbling over the funding of the Tribunal was more of a symbolic confrontation that allows the different parties to make a show of sticking to their positions without making any real impact on Lebanon’s relationship to the STL. As I have argued before, neither the STL opponents nor its supporters have maintained a principled stance towards it. The legacy of this short-sightedness and lack of spine means the addition of another chronic issue to plague Lebanese politics to the host of ingrained concerns.
However, in the short term, PM Mikati seems to have negotiated the STL issue very well and used his clout to pass the funding decision despite the empty protestations of his ‘allies’ in Hezbollah and Aoun’s FPM. In effect, the ‘formula’ that Nabih Berri godfathered was a face-saving mechanism designed for the benefit of Hezbollah and the FPM. Mikati’s credentials among Sunnis will no doubt be boosted by this decision. This boost will further undermine Saad Hariri’s claims to the premiership as Mikati’s ‘third way’ appears to be paying dividends. In the absence of a real appetite for changing the cabinet, partially due to the situation in Syria, Mikati can continue to build a solid base of support while Hariri remains in his self-imposed exile.
In parallel, Berri’s timely intervention illustrates the unique role that he plays within Lebanese politics as a consensual figure. Berri cannot afford Hezbollah’s hardline tactics, and his authority has been built since the 80s on his skill in manufacturing consensual arrangements. Such arrangements represent a constant feature of the Lebanese political system and its aversion to conclusiveness. Berri’s intervention prepares the groundwork for the role he will play in the next stage in Lebanese politics, a role that unlike Hezbollah he has to constantly maintain.
When it comes to Hezbollah and the FPM, their acquiescence on the issue of the STL funding exposed the distance between rhetoric and practice that typifies their brand of pragmatism now. It is particularly revealing in the case of Hezbollah whose members were named in the STL indictment. This could be a tactical decision to delay the final confrontation over the STL until the situation in Syria clears up, but it is more likely a symptom of their chronic disaffiliation with the state that allows to see themselves simultaneously within and without its jurisdiction. This is often expressed through Hassan Nasrallah’s ‘assertive indifference’, to coin a phrase, over matter such as the STL.
The biggest losers however have to be March 14, who have invested so much hope and political capital in the STL, only to see it adopted by Mikati now. Their position is further weakened by the fact that Mikati can now exploit his support for the STL politically while they won’t be able to make any political gains through it. It is very hard to see what March 14 stands for anymore, as they continue to slowly decline into irrelevance in the absence of any clear plan for regaining power. As recently as July, they were still pinning their hopes on the STL and failing to anticipate that Mikati could negotiate this hurdle and turn it into a political advantage.
But the Lebanese people also lose as the STL becomes an entrenched divisive feature on the political scene, and one that we cannot influence ourselves.