Najib Miqati's Plan to Win Over Tripoli's Sunnis

Quietly and behind the scenes, the Lebanese Prime Minister is working hard for a big electoral upset in 2013

Thinking long-term (Photo credit: Bryan Denton for the New York Times)

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.

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  • Salma

    Mikati learned from the his friends in Syria the rules of the game: put the fire on then help putting it off. He was and still is among those who give weapons the people in Tebbaneh encouraging fights and at the same time preaches Azm wa Saadeh. He is close to the integrists and to the syrian regime at the same time, which allows him to help in their release from syrian prisons… Time will show if his policy pays back.

  • Alex Rowell

    Great post. At this stage, few I think would disagree that he has a more statesmanly air than Saad Hariri. And I’ve heard more than one March 14 partisan admit with some embarrassment that they think he handled the STL issue better than Hariri would have.

  • ghassan karam

    It is not only Mikati that would have no problem against Saad Hariri but practically no one would have to worry about losing a contest with Saad Hariri if based on merit. Saad Hariri is no politician, neither is he imaginative, creative or fast on his feet. He was not made for politics and he should know it. His “support” has never been earned based on any personal criteria besides the fact that he is the son of an assassinated leader who also happens to be on good talking terms with the Saudi royals.
    Saad Hariri has become a heavier and a more burdensome yoke around the literal shoulders of the Future movement. The faster they find a new face to identify with the more difficult it would be for Mikati to make major inroads into their turf. If March 14 fails to find a charismatic, imaginative new face then I am afraid that Mikati will not be the only person to gain from the failure of March 14 to either lead or govern.

  • g

    Informative piece. However, it’s wishful thinking to think the Saudis will dump Hariri in favor of Miqati. And for what? Because Miqati isn’t the abject failure everyone thought he would be? Because he is making inroads into Tripoli, his home town? Being the local zaim of Tripoli doesn’t make you displace Hariri as a national leader.

    Is Miqati getting a little bit more popular? Perhaps, but to think this is the beginning of the end of Hariri and the Future Movement is wrong. Miqati can’t extend his electoral write beyond Tripoli, if even there. He is more of a local nuisance to the Future Movement than a challenge for national leadership.

    • Salma

      agree with g

  • Observer

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  • Observer


    You need to update and live up to the “latest signs of the times”:

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  • Antidisestablishmentarianism

    nice piece of analysis. the future of the sunni sect lies in his hands. no doubt

  • Z. H.


    With regard to the political aspirations of Mr. Miqati, all I can tell you, in a nutshell, that sometimes the upper echelons of political will might go against one’s liking, regardless of the success rate of the top assets.

    This might sound gibberish to some, so I’ll translate in English: Mr. Miqati might as well try his best to win electorates in Tripoli, he might even succeed to a certain degree; but all of this is making a major assumption, which is that the political powers at play in Lebanon will be constant until election day. Politics is a dangerous, dirty and treacherous game, especially when nobody plays by the rules as customary in Lebanon.

  • Observer
  • ws

    a different take on Mikati’s pandering to Tripoli’s Islamist… a move Mr. Murr calls shameful…

  • jray

    here’s a good one from Mikati while in Rio… maybe he was talking about his great achievements in Tripoli!

  • Bronxman

    Is this Mikati just positioning himself in anticipation of the Syrian regime collapsing and Hezbullah becoming seriously weakened? Playing both sides is a tricky game.

  • EJE

    I think the bet, although one exists on the 2013 Tripoli election, is really on Assad. KSA is backing Hariri who is backing the opposition. KSA will not be able to back Mikati despite a major win in Tripoli (2013) if Assad falls by then. It will have to continue with Hariri boy who was playing in the major leagues while Mikati sidelined himself and took care of the minors. I am not saying that Mikati will not be rewarded for his alleged neutrality but I can’t see him rewarded greater than Hariri who is all in in the one hand that really matters; Syria. If Mikati’s return on his investment is limited to a 2013 win in Tripoli, I think even he would not consider that a significant victory.

  • Wael

    Rifi is a 100% slam dunk in M14 list and this is from internal sources. So here’s the list Mikati has to beat:

    Ashraf Rifi
    Mosbah Ahdab
    Mostafa Alloush
    Mohammad Kabbara
    Samir Jasr (or insert any other boring FM candidate)

    Regardless of Saad’s incompetence, this is a very tough list to beat. If the electoral system stays as is, I would put my money on both Mikati and Safadi loosing their seats, if they use a proportional system, they have a shot.