Quietly and behind the scenes, the Lebanese Prime Minister is working hard for a big electoral upset in 2013
Somewhere along the highway coming from Beirut to Tripoli, there’s a pedestrian bridge near a sleepy northern town that I used to call the “Hariri bridge”. The all-Sunni town of Qalamoun had been a stronghold for the Hariri family and the Future Movement for as long as I could remember, and that bridge regularly carried messages related to Hariri events and March 14 talking points, usually flanked by large posters of Martyr Rafik el Hariri or his son Saad.
So imagine my surprise as I passed under that bridge yesterday when I saw that it shed all traces of the trademark blue color of the Future Movement and carried instead a large banner that read “Thank you Your excellency”, with, for the first time in my recollection, the smiling portrait of Najib Miqati, not Saad Hariri, staring back at me.
Tectonic Plates Shifting
It is easy to dismiss the significance of banners on bridges as weak indicators of political fortunes, but as Habib Battah had previously reported, policial banners and flags on Lebanese landmarks are significant territorial claims that speak to the preferences of the local populations. What happened in Qalamoun is akin to removing a large poster of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah that had always been in a Shiaa town square and replacing it with a poster of Nabih Berri. This would only happen if the loyalty of the entire town had shifted.
How did Mr. Miqati turn around the town of Qalamoun? Is this part of a larger plan by the Prime Minister to expand his influence and electoral gains for the next parliamentary elections in 2013 at the expense of the Future Movement?
Step by step
The immediate reason for the “Thank you” Qalamoun banner was the release of 9 of Lebanon’s Nahr el Bared Islamist detainees who had been in custody since 2007 without any indictment. In their plight, Mr. Miqati saw a political opportunity, negotiated their release behind closed doors and paid their ransom from his own money.
This was a classic move in Miqati’s long-term plan to win over the Sunnis in Lebanon’s northern capital, a plan that is unfolding so slowly that it is easy to miss the pieces of the puzzle as they fall. But by time the parliamentary elections of 2013 gets close, the edifice that Miqati is building will reveal itself.
You might believe that Miqati can’t possibly beat Hariri in a head-to-head showdown in the northern capital. That was the common wisdom when this government was first formed, considering the “dishonorable” way in which Miqati swooped in to replace the ejected Hariri. But politics, as Qalamoun would attest, is a fast-shifting and treacherous game. Miqati has the motivation, the means, and as an added bonus, a weak and absent adversary.
Elements of a plan
Mr. Miqati’s efforts began as a reaction to the bad blood that resulted from ousting Hariri. He gave the city of Tripoli more ministers in the government than it ever had. He kept popular Sunni public servants like General Ashraf Rifi in place despite their loyalty to Hariri (more on that later). It was a turbulent time, but he managed to weather the storm. Mr. Miqati who was relentlessly savaged in the media as a faux-Sunni leader had something to prove.
Consider what Miqati achieved to date to advance his electoral chances in 2013:
- Alliances in Tripoli
Mr. Miqati’s opponent in Tripoli is not Hariri himself. It is Hariri’s coattail, as represented by Future Movement MPs who would never be elected without Mr. Hariri’s stamp of approval. Mr. Mikati on the other hand is allied with active philanthropists (Safadi) and old political families (Karami) who have their own significant constituencies. Mr. Hariri’s absence and silence are doubly hurting his electoral reach. The wildcard here is General Ashraf Rifi, who is likely to stand for elections in 2013. It is unclear what Mr. Mikati got from Rifi in exchange for keeping him in his job and covering him politically. Rifi could calculate that Mikati is a better bet for his political future and surprise everyone by switching allegiance.
- Standing up to Iran and Aoun
People are learning that Miqati is not the caricature he is painted to be , i.e. an Iran and Hezbollah stooge. As David Ignatius noted in the Washington Post, Miqati “surprised Americans and even Israelis with his relative independence from both Syria and its patron, Iran”. As a plus, Mr. Mikati is driving M.P. Michel Aoun crazy, a trick that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with the Sunni street.
- Financing Sunni fighters
As I wrote in a previous post, it doesn’t matter if Mr. Miqati is actually financing Tripoli’s Sunni fighters. What matters is that he has the reputation that he is. This, unfortunately, is a good reputation with large swathes of the Tripoli street today.
- Development funds for the city
Mr. Miqati is bringing home the halal bacon, which came in the form of L.L 150 Billion ($100 Million) government development fund for the city of Tripoli. Cynics say that this is blatant vote-buying, but neighborhoods that need the money don’t care about that. Tripoli, where Lebanon’s poorest people live, is in desperate need for such funds and Mr. Miqati’s rationale that development undercuts poverty and terrorism is spotless.
- The Azm and Saadé ( العزم والسعادة ) foundation
Mr. Mikati’s social arm is doing quiet but extensive work in Tripoli, funding charity, education, mosques, sports and literary competitions. The association is meant to provide social work, but when the time comes, it can also staff a splendid electoral machine and get-out-the-vote operation. This is starting to look like the early days of the Hariri foundation.
- Releasing Islamists from jail
Like Hariri before him, Mr. Miqati is extending bridges of friendship to Islamists. Getting the government to release the Nahr el Bared detainees was a political coup for Mr. Mikati.
- Just being here. Calm and steady leadership.
This is the big one. The daily contrast between Mr. Miqati on one hand and the absent and silent Mr. Hariri on the other is turning people around to Mr. Miqati, whom some are beginning to see as a mature and safe pair of hands, as opposed to the young and irascible Saad Hariri.
Nothing Succeeds like Success. The Saudis are watching.
A success for Mr. Miqati in Tripoli would potentially be far-reaching. The Hariri family has long cared for Saudi Arabia’s interests in Lebanon, but political alliances are not eternal and the Saudis might conclude that Mr. Hariri is becoming a liability. The royals might decide to partner with the cunning Mr. Miqati and help make him Lebanon’s pre-eminent Sunni.
But first Mr. Miqati would have to prove his mettle. The 2013 elections in Tripoli could prove to be ground zero for the transformation of the Sunni political scene in Lebanon.