Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Syria

Hizbullah, Mikati, and the STL Funding Showdown

Ever since Najib Mikati took over as Prime Minister of Lebanon earlier this year, things have gone relatively smoothly. With no opposition in the cabinet, there have been few opportunities for conflict (with the exception of the odd squabble between Michel Aoun and his disgruntled allies).

All that could change next week. The cabinet must finally take up the ticking time bomb that they’ve been avoiding for months (and which was the downfall of Saad Hariri’s government), namely the issue of funding the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

For obvious reasons, Hizbullah is opposed to funding the court, as is AMAL. And Michel Aoun, per his usual custom, has played the role of the intransigent rejectionist to the hilt, going so far as to declare: “Even if Hizbullah approves the funding, we’ll vote against it.”

The problem is that it’s not in Hizbullah’s interests, at this stage, to create an international incident over the STL, and this is what may well happen if Lebanon reneges on its obligation to the court. The Americans and Europeans have made it abundantly clear over the past several weeks that there would be dire consequences if Lebanon severs its ties to the STL.

What this means is still  unclear. However, when one combines Lebanon’s recent stance at the Arab League on the Syrian uprising with the prospect of ending its cooperation with the Tribunal, it seems straightforward to assume that Hizbullah’s opponents (in Lebanon and abroad) will seize the opportunity to argue that the Mikati government is nothing more than an extension of the Syrian regime, and should be treated as such by the international community.

Hizbullah would prefer to avoid such a scenario, as they understand that their position on Syria has not done them many favors in Lebanon or the rest of the region. The problem is, even if they wanted to find a solution that would keep the hounds at bay while allowing them to save face by voting against the funding, it’s not clear how they would do so.

As far as I have been able to ascertain from my conversations in Beirut this week, approving the funding requires a simple majority vote in the thirty-member cabinet. At present, Hizbullah and its allies hold eighteen seats, while the remaining twelve are divided between ministers loyal to Mikati, President Sleiman, and Walid Jumblatt. In other words, there is no way to compose the necessary majority to approve the funding without using ministers from the shares of Hizbullah, Amal, or the FPM.

So we’re faced with a situation whereby either one of those three parties has to reverse its policy on the funding, or they all hold a firm line and Lebanon drops the STL like a bad habit. Neither scenario is  ideal, from the current majority’s perspective.

One possible solution that has been floated is that the cabinet passes the hot potato to the Parliament, where  a majority in favor of the funding can be assembled by having Walid Jumblatt vote with his old allies. I’m not sure this is a constitutionally legitimate move, but I’ve been told that it could be the basis for a typically Lebanese fudge.

Whatever happens, we’re sure to see Saad Hariri make a serious push next week at the Tripoli gathering to put as much pressure as possible on Najib Mikati to resign. My sense is that Hizbullah would prefer to keep this government afloat and out of the Syrian cross-fire, but not at the expense of voting for the tribunal themselves. If the parliamentary solution doesn’t work and the cabinet can’t muster the votes, Mikati will probably walk and Hizbullah will let him do so.

In that scenario, we’ll be back to treading water with no government, and things will be… interesting, yet again.

[An earlier version of this post stated that a two-thirds super-majority was required to approve the funding. I’m now being told that a simple majority will do, as there are no new international treaties being signed.]
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18 thoughts on “Hizbullah, Mikati, and the STL Funding Showdown

  1. The days of the Mikati cabinet are numbered since this has been a Tower of Babel from day one. It is time that Lebanon retires once and for all its experiment of forming a cabinet where each minister behaves like a mini PM.

    If this cabinet is to find a solution for the STL funding issue then it looks as if there is only one way out. HA cannot vote for it and Amal would rather not. This leaves the FPM legion who have never shut the door on funding. They have always complained about the process and so I believe that if HA is adamant on buying time for the cabinet that they will find a political cover for the FPM to vote for funding. A parliamentary vote that supports the STL could be the act that will provide the Aounists with an excuse to give Mikati another day.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | November 23, 2011, 10:04 pm
  2. While the scenario in the above seems more likely,I feel that HA and its allies might just keep to their words and disregard the threats from US et al. Excuse my ignorance, but what can the US, Europe and the international community do to punish Lebanon? what legitimacy do they have to sanction? Wouldnt the STL be funded through other means and if this is the case, there shouldnt be any need for ‘ dire consequences’, knowing that all the Lebanese will suffer because of the choices of the present government that is just temporary, and probably near expiration.

    Posted by Maverick | November 24, 2011, 12:44 am
  3. Maverick,
    This is not about whether the STL will find the $40 million to fund its operations. The Secretary General is charged with finding alternative funding in case Lebanon reneges on its financial obligations. This was anticipated from day one.
    The Lebanese economy rests , to a large extent on the viability of its banking sector. Any sanctions or threat of sanctions is bound to be felt by the Lebanese banks and that will endanger the delicate financial balance of Lebanon.. ( No one should allow a banking sector to be 3 times larger than the economy.)

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | November 24, 2011, 8:22 am
  4. Maverick,

    I am not sure if you have followed the event of Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB) the fifth largest bank in Lebanon. It took the US treasury one press release for the bank to fold over in less than 48 hours. Everyone knows that whatever LCB was doing, every other bank in Lebanon does the same. All the US needs to do is publish the name of one or two banks and the banking sector in Lebanon is done. Which mean the economy is done, which mean the lebanese goverment becomes insolvement because it can not roll over it debt anymore. This could truly be an ugly senario to say the least.

    I hope that answer your question.

    Posted by Free Soldier | November 24, 2011, 11:59 am
  5. So if the STL funding is defeated because of Hezb and there are financial or political repercussions on Lebanon, we’ll know exactly who to blame.

    What a waste of time for the politicians discussing this issue. There are 1000 other more pressing matters, like the economy, jobs, infrastructure, electricity, roads, healthcare, education, etc…

    Just pay the goddamn bill and move on. Stop escaping reality.

    Posted by LebGuy | November 24, 2011, 2:35 pm
  6. Thanks for your clarifications,

    However I still believe the West will be reluctant to cause an economic catastrophe in Lebanon by applying sanctions. It is not in their, or anyones interest to throw Lebanon to the wolves especially during this volatile regional scenario. If anything, it is in their vital interest to keep Lebanon afloat economically and politically. It would be a disaster on their part to have lost the ” beacon of democracy and progess” in the ME because of the temporary HA led governement refused to vote for the STL Funding.
    If anything, they will ratchet up the pressure on M8 and strenghthen their support for M14, but they cannot and must not make the whole country pay.

    Posted by Maverick | November 24, 2011, 5:36 pm
  7. There is a legal way out of it. Section 8 of the STL agreement states that Lebanon can defer payment due to “extrenuating circumstances” (lord knows Lebanon has a lot of those), by which the UN Secretary General will have to look for other means of funding. Taking this option does not put Lebanon against the STL, it just gives a legal excuse to avoid supporting it until March of next year, during which Lebanon can rethink supporting the STL altogether.

    the STL is moving on, no matter what, and Hizbullah knows that. So I don’t think they’re going to vote against it. I think they will take the legal “fire escape” above.

    Posted by Anas | November 24, 2011, 6:13 pm
  8. If you watched Miqati on Marcel Ghanem (LBC); he basically threatened to walk away if STL is not funded. I really can’t see how they can get the 2/3 absolute majority without the splintering of Tayyar”s block (wink wink)…Which is possible with a madman turncoat like clAoun who can “justify” any and all flip flops (and his sheeple believe him).

    HA rather have a vacuum then capitulate! that’s not their style….and back we go to why the government was formed…back to June 16th…No need to repeat.

    Posted by danny | November 24, 2011, 8:01 pm
  9. The west will not starve Lebanon. Doing so will just give Iran the opportunity to pump some more funds into Lebanon to get more popularity/influence. Even if the west is stupid and officially sanctions Lebanon, they’ll be alleviating the effects via Saudi funding. It’s like after the Zionist bombing in 2006 when Saudi Arabia and Iran competed over who gives Lebanon more money for reconstruction.

    If the cabinet votes down the funding of the STL, why should Miqati resign? There would be a democratic process (by western standards, but obviously those change when they’re talking about Lebanon) in which STL funding would be turned down and that’s all there is to it. UN security council sanctions would not pass and unilateral western sanctions just mean more Russian and Chinese access to Lebanon (another big no-no for the west).

    Aoun is against the STL because Hariri bypassed Lahhoud’s authority in establishing it, which, my I remind you, was also unconstitutional, But no one cares about that now, except Aoun because he wants to be president and he wants to preserve what ever little power is left for presidents in Lebanon. In other words, Aoun won’t change his vote. Hizbullah and AMAL? Forget about it.

    You brought up a good scenario with the parliamentary vote loophole and that’s the only realistic scenario I can see which would allow funding of the STL. But even then, it will solve nothing because March 14 will bitch that it wasn’t accepted by the cabinet (ie government) and March 8 will bitch that the process was possibly unconstitutional.

    It’s too bad that they don’t just take the money and spend it on something that should unite the Lebanese, such as clearing the unexploded cluster munitions and mines still left all over south Lebanon. At least I hope that would unite the Lebanese.. but it probably won’t because you guys love to bicker just for the sake of bickering.

    Posted by Murad | November 24, 2011, 8:08 pm
  10. There is something absurd in this reasoning. It all sounds as if not funding the STL is a win against the West. Not funding the STL is a blow to the Hariri legacy.

    Posted by LebGuy | November 24, 2011, 10:01 pm
  11. The issue is not about paying the dues but rather about accepting the legitimacy of the STL. 
    HA do not want a confrontation and prefer to buy time until the regional situation is clear.
    A scenario that will help achieve this is by requesting amendment to the protocol (initiated by FPM) with the STL claiming that to legitimize it it should 1) respect the sovereignty of Lebanese law. And 2) it should be signed by the Lebanese president. At the same time transferring the money to the UN (by obtaining the signatures of the president, PM and minister of Justice FPM) and requesting that it shouldn’t be transferred to the STL until the amendments are done.
    This way, they think that, Lebanon has fulfilled its monetary obligations and at the same time they didn’t accept the legitimacy of the STL in its current form.
    If the STL agrees to amend the protocol, they will dissolve the government and claim that the protocol can’t be amended until a new government is formed. 

    Posted by IHTDA | November 25, 2011, 2:07 am
  12. See Anas’s comment about, which I just pulled out of moderation.

    By the way, everyone, the issue may not involve a 2/3 majority, just a simple majority. But the scenario described above still holds. There will still need to be ministers from M8 voting with the prez, PM, and jumblatt for it to work.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 25, 2011, 2:46 am
  13. QN/Anas
    I doubt that Lebanon will use that escape hatch. Mikati has been vocal about bringing the issue to a vote and placing his credibility on line. It will not help him to be part of a scheme to kick the can. We will find out in the next 7-10 days.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | November 25, 2011, 7:49 am
  14. QN,

    If not 2/3 absolute majority then…My scenario of splitting the Tayyar votes can save face. FPM can still vote against but have their allies (four of them I guess to tilt the scale) splinter away for the vote. Then Aoun could declare that he is a democratic person and his allies can vote as they wish…But we will see.

    Posted by danny | November 25, 2011, 8:09 am
  15. …Here’s another way of dealing with the case. Resign 9or tend resignations) for another “supposed” reason and throw the government into vacuum…The government does not resign but cannot have a quorum to make decisions?

    Posted by danny | November 25, 2011, 8:44 am
  16. Sorry to say that the whole thing, including the discussion in our local superficial press, is Kabuki theater to me.

    We, in Lebanon, never discuss the issues. The cabinet and parliament and press never discuss substance, but always process e.g. Jumblatt will vote like this or like that, USA will sanction or not, and Mikati will stay or leave but blah blah blah Syria wants it like that etc….

    The crux of the problem to me is that serious issues are NEVER EVER discussed seriously and in public (in a forum where resolution is possible or at least where the issues are better laid out so that players will ultimately bear responsibility for their positions).

    True of Cairo accord, Taef, civil war issues, 2006 war, STL, you name it. No wonder we are stuck and will remain.

    PS If and when he resigns, think Mikati will say I’m doing it because STL is important and not having it means a, b, c?

    Posted by OldHand | November 25, 2011, 8:58 am
  17. Danny: Read this and laugh all the way to the bank. You r ability to read tea leafs is phenomenal:

    ذكرت وكالة الانباء المركزية ان اتجاه وزراء التيار الوطني الحر نحو اعلان استقالتهم من الحكومة قبل موعد بت بند التمويل في جلسة 30 الجاري برز بقوة اليوم، بفعل مواقف لبعض الوزراء لم تنف هذا التوجه تقاطعت مع معلومات مستقاة من مصادر في تكتل التغيير والاصلاح عن توجه قوي يرقى الى ما يشبه القرار بطرح الاستقالة وقلب الطاولة على الحكومة وفريق المعارضة في آن من بوابة عرقلة مشاريع وزاراتهم. وقالت المصادر لـ “المركزية” ان من شأن الاستقالة تفويت الفرصة على فريق 14 آذار الذي يعتبر نفسه منتصرا في حالتي التمويل على المستوى العملي المتصل بسير شؤون المحكمة والمعنوي بالاطاحة بالحكومة لإعادة استلام مقاليد الحكم واحكام القبضة السياسية على الحكومة.

    For those that might not read Arabic the above is saying that the FPM is leaning towards asking all its members in the cabinet to resign. That will prevent the anticipated victory by the March 14 forces regarding the STL funding.

    If that turns out to be true what would Mikati’s response be. Would he accept an internal revolt or would he insist on maintaining a semblance of integrity for the premiership. I bet that he would resign.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | November 25, 2011, 12:10 pm
  18. Ap:

    I don’t disagree. Language is very important. But in this case, I think where it is clear that english is not exactly everyones first language, then accommodations are certainly in order, and the gist of what masood was trying to say is clear. He was talking about the Passion.

    Whether wittingly or not, he tried to redirect the discussion in terms more familiar to christians. In fact, he demonstrated precisely the point that he was trying to argue against. The use of passion plays and religious symbolism has historically ended up in pogroms.

    Posted by Gabriel | December 22, 2011, 11:57 am

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