Yesterday, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati issued a statement that is worth contemplating. Mikati, who is known to enjoy limited support among the Sunni population and who heads a government that receives orders from Hezbollah, said in a meeting he held with clerics in his hometown Tripoli that he would never allow a rift among Sunnis. In the same meeting, he also expressed his “absolute trust” in Lebanon’s mufti Sheikh Mohamed Rashid Kabbani.
This makes a lot of sense for it seems quite natural for a Sunni prime minister to want to preserve the unity of his religious sect and to support its most senior cleric. However, what is more significant is Mikati’s change of approach, for this time he chose confrontation over his usual “self-distancing” attitude towards the divisions in the ranks of the Sunni population in Lebanon.
Several parties expressed their reservations at Mikati’s acceptance to head an unbalanced government that was formed after the mass resignations’ “coup” launched on June 12, 2011 by the ministers belonging to the March 8 Alliance and came in flagrant violation of the Doha Agreement. At the time, the alliance attributed the resignations to the case of what came to be known as “the perjurers” in the Rafik al-Hariri assassination investigation. However, right after that “coup,” Hezbollah and its supporters forgot all about the “perjurers” issue. Observers argued that the entire case was just a pretext for seizing control over state institutions and passing an election law that would facilitate monopolizing power under the banner of democracy and legitimacy following the gainsHezbollah acquired at gunpoint.
When Mikati accepted to head a “de facto” government that was blessed by Damascus and Tehran and opposed by the majority of Sunnis, he was aware that it was a tough challenge. In the meantime, frustration within the Sunni camps in both Lebanon and Syria was reaching its peak. Atrocities committed by the Syrian regime increased sectarian tension making ever more extremist Sunni militias join what was a peaceful popular uprising throughout Syria. Hezbollah and his allies, across the borders, took advantage of the situation and began launching one attack after another against Sunni Lebanese leadership.
Politicians belonging to the Future Movement thus assumed, rightly or wrongly, that any Sunni party that does not fully support them at this stage must be regarded as an adversary. On the other hand, the mufti who had once been very close to the Future Movement following the support its members gave him when he and members of his family were accused of corruption by March 8 members, began to distance himself from the Movement and get closer to Mikati. The mufti’s justification for such action has been that in his capacity as the religious head of the Sunnis should not be regarded as biased towards one Sunni camp against another.
The Mufti’s stance, naturally, alienated the supporters of the Future Movement who saw that he dealt a fatal blow to the Sunni public they represent. From there on, there has been an open confrontation within the Lebanese Sunnis. This was crystallized by Mikati’s new attitude and which, in fact, confirmed the concerns that his and the Mufti’s adversaries have harbored for long.
Now, a few facts need to be made clear.
First, regardless of the mistakes, especially those made by the Future Movement, the confrontation joined by Mikati is bound to deepen the rift between Sunnis not the other way round. This is because antagonizing a communal and political bloc that has proven to represent the majority Sunnis’ against the mufti is bound to increase the division rather than reduce it.
Second, Miktai chose to “fight” in the ranks of Kabbani in Tripoli in the absence of the city’s mufti Sheikh Malek al-Sha’ar who is currently in Europe following death threats he received, most likely from groups allied with the Syrian regime. It is actually quite surprising that Mikati was silent about Sha’ar’s issue yet is entering a confrontation in support for Kabbani.
Third, it would have been more in line with Mikati’s wisdom and diplomacy not to address the sectarian issue in such a direct manner. He actually talked recently about an “Islamic emirate” in Tripoli after he had already been accused of supporting some extremist Islamist groups with intention to outbid his opponents and undermine the popularity of his rivals in the Future Movement.
Fourth, Lebanese Sunnis do not need another problem. and as Mikati is well aware, they already have enough on their plate.
(Eyad Abu Shakra is a columnist at Asharq AlAwsat, where this article was published on Dec. 24, 2012)