Foreign Influence in Lebanon and the Third Miqati Premiership

For the third time in 16 years, Prime Minister Najib Miqati comes to office as a consensus candidate in a country with deep divisions within the Lebanese political class and fast changing regional dynamics. The international community is rallying around him with the hope that he can deliver on reform, while the Lebanese public remains largely skeptical that his government will be able to address the root causes of the country’s problems. It is in fact hard to see how this short-term government with a limited mandate can navigate domestic and foreign pressures, manage the ongoing economic collapse, and contain the public anger, all as the country prepares for parliamentary elections next spring.

Miqati’s Three Premierships

All three premierships of this billionaire businessman, who represents the northern city of Tripoli in the parliament, were transitional during times of crisis. Miqati’s first premiership in 2005 lasted three months; his second in 2011 eight months; and his current term is expected to last anywhere between six and eight months when, according to the constitution, it would end after the conclusion of the parliamentary elections. (There is a possibility that the elections will be moved up to March 27, a proposal that Miqati endorses, which will shorten the term of his government.)

All three premierships of this billionaire businessman, who represents the northern city of Tripoli in the parliament, were transitional during times of crisis.

Miqati’s current premiership has some resemblance to his first two experiments in office. His first cabinet came two months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005; he was the candidate acceptable to both the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition and the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance. Miqati was known to have close ties to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad but has since built strong ties with US and French officials. This first short-lived cabinet had to address three challenges: the June 2005 parliamentary elections, the international investigation into the Hariri assassination, and revival of the faltering economy. Sixteen years later, Miqati faces similar but more acute challenges, including the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion in August 2020, the economic collapse, and preparation for the general elections next year.

The 2005 parliamentary election organized by the Miqati government resulted in a majority for the March 14 coalition, which allowed the US and Saudi backed Fouad Siniora to become prime minister until November 2009 atempting to counter Hezbollah politically. Today, however, this anti-Hezbollah coalition has disappeared; two of its main leaders—Saad Hariri (Future Movement) and Walid Joumblatt (Progressive Socialist Party)—are now either on relatively good terms with Hezbollah or are appeasing it. The other significant shift in recent years, compared to 2005, is the growing public opposition to the entire political class. Hariri is now hoping to win a majority in the next parliamentary elections that would allow him to endorse an ally to succeed President Michel Aoun in next year’s presidential round; however, his base has been shrinking, his resources are depleted, and he lacks official Saudi endorsement of his political activities.

Miqati became prime minister a second time in June 2011 after Hariri lost his premiership the previous January. Miqati benefited from being a moderate at the peak of the political clash between Hariri’s Future Movement and Hezbollah at the start of the Syrian uprising. In 2021, he benefits from the political clash between President Aoun and Hariri. Miqati’s second premiership was marked by indecision and reluctance to assert his government’s power facing turmoil in Syria, which led to further destabilization in Lebanon.

Since 2011, Miqati has been wary of challenging Saad Hariri (who had described his cabinet as a “Hezbollah government”); however, the relationship between the two has evolved over time as Miqati facilitated Hariri’s interests in and out of office, and now they are in a de facto alliance. In 2016, Hariri’s eagerness to return to power led to his deal with Aoun according to which the latter became president and he became prime minister. But that deal accelerated the economic collapse and complicated his relationship with Saudi Arabia. Miqati, in return, has long kept a distance from the current Lebanese president and has been closer to the anti-Aoun alliance that includes Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Marada Movement leader Suleiman Frangieh. Miqati continues to serve Hariri’s interests in office by keeping Hariri appointees in their positions, most notably in the security sector, and he has even selected some of the ministerial nominees Hariri had floated when he was trying to form the government. To be sure, Miqati seems to be once again temporarily filling the seat of Saad Hariri and does not seem bold enough to build a premiership that goes beyond playing this transitional role.

The French–Iranian Rapprochement and the Arab Gas Pipeline

Miqati’s current government is the product of two recent developments that facilitated its ultimate formation on September 10: the rapprochement between Paris and Tehran in the past few months and the US endorsement of a plan to supply Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria via the Arab Gas Pipeline.

Miqati’s current government is the product of two recent developments: the rapprochement between Paris and Tehran in the past few months and the US endorsement of a plan to supply Egyptian gas to Lebanon.

On August 19, the US embassy in Beirut formally endorsed the transfer of Egyptian gas to Lebanon hours after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah announced an arrangement for a diesel fuel shipment from Iran. On August 28, France took part in a regional conference in Iraq, which Iran and neighboring countries attended. This was followed by a phone call on September 5 between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in which they agreed to enhance bilateral trade relations and regional cooperation. More specifically, they agreed that easing US economic pressure on Lebanon would allow “Iran, France and Hezbollah to form a strong government in Lebanon [that] can benefit this country.” A few days after the Lebanese government was announced on September 10, it was evident that Hezbollah succeeded in countering the US-French pressure to form a technocratic government that is independent from the political class; the result was a government of technocrats selected by the political class.

Moreover, US-Russian cooperation in southwest Syria played a role in facilitating the deal to form a new cabinet in Lebanon even though the long-term objective of this understanding is a continuous attempt to restrain Iranian influence. Jordan’s role also has been instrumental: since the visit of King Abdullah II to the White House July 19, he has been calling for the United States to approve normalizing relations between Amman  and Damascus, most notably to reactivate the Nasib border crossing between the two countries. All these regional dynamics facilitated the breakthrough in Beirut, which explains why Miqati’s first foreign visits included Paris and Amman.

However, the ongoing rivalry between the United States and Iran in Lebanon means that Miqati might not enjoy a long honeymoon. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Beirut recently and told Lebanese officials on October 8 that “at any point in time if the Lebanese government asks Iran formally within the context of their brotherly ties . . . Iran is ready to send fuel products.” US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is scheduled to visit Beirut on October 14 after a stop in Moscow, and she will most likely counter Amir-Abdollahian’s messages to Lebanese officials;  State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a press briefing on October 7 that “broadly speaking, fuel from a country subject to sanctions like Iran is not, very clearly, a sustainable solution to Lebanon’s energy crisis.”

The ongoing rivalry between the United States and Iran in Lebanon means that Miqati might not enjoy a long honeymoon.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Iran continue their talks in Baghdad to ease regional tensions. Amir-Abdollahian recently noted that “the Iran-Saudi dialogue is on the right track … we have achieved results and agreements, but we still need more dialogue.” These talks, however, have not convinced Riyadh to restore its role in Lebanon and provide cash aid that is crucial to stabilize the Lebanese currency, even after the visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Saudi Arabia on October 3. Miqati has recently announced political and religious allegiance to Saudi Arabia, but there are no indications that Riyadh is willing to give him what it has denied Saad Hariri. The lack of a Saudi response to his overtures may be behind Miqati’s announcement that he has no scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future.

Miqati and the Troubles at Home

Miqati faces mounting political challenges at home. First, his cabinet is caught up in the tensions between Saad Hariri and President Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who leads the Free Patriotic Movement. Second, he must carefully navigate his relationship with Hezbollah to keep his government unified and functional while evading any disagreements with the international community. So far, tensions within the cabinet have been minimal because members have avoided contentious issues, most notably on economic reforms and appointments to fill the vacancies in the public sector.

Known for his ability to issue carefully crafted statements, Miqati recently stated that “I do not object to visiting Syria and cooperating with it if this does not risk exposing Lebanon to sanctions. If Lebanon risks facing sanctions in light of any possible visit to Syria, then I will not allow it to happen.” Miqati links the decision to normalize Lebanon’s relations with the Syrian government to US approval, as was the case during the September 4 visit of former Deputy Prime Minister Zeina Akar to Syria to discuss the transfer of Egyptian gas to Lebanon. Miqati might be more cautious in limiting public interaction with the Syrian regime because his former ties to Assad may make him an easy target for critics.

Miqati will have to reckon with Hezbollah’s influence in an election season that practically already began; the political class can be expected to grandstand and blame one another for the economic collapse.

Miqati will have to reckon with Hezbollah’s influence in an election season that practically already began; the political class can be expected to grandstand and blame one another for the economic collapse. Hassan Nasrallah announced October 11 that the lead investigator into the deadly Beirut Port blast, Judge Tariq Bitar, should be replaced because he has summoned and is ready to prosecute a wide range of politicians, including Hezbollah allies. (Bitar’s probe was automatically suspended again on October 12 when two of the accused filed a lawsuit asking for his recusal from the case.) Nasrallah accused the judge of politically targeting individuals, which is an unprecedented move by Hezbollah toward the Lebanese judiciary. This will be one of Miqati’s most significant challenges as the investigation also targets his own allies. Additionally, prematurely ending Bitar’s mission might complicate his relationship with the international community and the Lebanese public, which is eagerly awaiting the results of the investigation.

The Biden Administration also hopes to revive the Lebanon–Israel talks on demarcating the maritime border to pave the way for exploring gas in the Mediterranean. Now that the Miqati government is in place, US special envoy Amos Hochstein is expected to visit Lebanon and Israel this month, but it is unclear whether a breakthrough is even possible. This will once again test Miqati’s relation with Hezbollah.

Less than a month after gaining the confidence vote for his cabinet in the parliament on September 20, Miqati has started to manage expectations of what he can accomplish; and there are initial setbacks, most notably in the electricity sector. Miqati’s name was recently mentioned in the Pandora Papers as one businessman using offshore accounts to avoid taxes, which does not help the image of empathy and reform he has recently projected. His main accomplishment to date remains coming to office after 372 days without a functioning government in the country, and the minimal expectation is that his government will stabilize the local currency and the volatile exchange market while addressing the energy crisis. Beyond that, the reform agenda that French authorities are aiming to advance might be a bit ambitious given that the internal and external dynamics that helped Miqati form his government also restrain its ability to accomplish any significant reforms during a short transitional period defined by an election season.