In an atmosphere of revolutionary change in the region, TIME spoke to Lebanon’s prime minister designate Najib Mikati about the challenges of governing his fractious nation. Mikati, who is a Sunni Muslim (all Lebanese premiers are) and also the richest man in the country, was interviewed by Nicholas Blanford.
TIME: Standing for the Lebanese premiership would appear to be a thankless task given the political divisions within the country and the poor state of the economy, so what motivated you to seek the premiership?
Mikati:The real motivation is to rescue the nation. It wasn’t my intention to submit my candidacy but when I saw what was happening in the country, where we are going, the deadlock, I said it’s time to stand. Do I have any personal agenda for myself? Do I want anything for myself? What I’m trying to do is save and rescue the country if I can and I’m doing my best to do it. (See photos of the Lebanon protesters.)
You were able to win the nomination as prime minister after you secured the backing of the powerful Hizballah. Did Hizballah place any demands upon you before agreeing to nominate you?
There were no preconditions to my nomination. I am looking at the interest of Lebanon on the level of the international community and [on] the domestic [level] and [for] the safety and unity of Lebanon.
Did you have any misgivings about standing especially as many Sunnis believed that Saad Hariri, as the paramount Sunni leader, was the rightful premier? [In Lebanon, tradition decrees that prime ministers are drawn from the Sunni sect.]
It was not a matter of concern [for me], but I put in [my] mind what the Sunni community wants. They want stability in the country and no impunity for the killers of the late Rafik Hariri and ? others. I know what the Sunni community wants. I am saying “wait, don’t prejudge [me], see [my] actions?
Hariri’s coalition government was toppled when the Hizballah-led opposition ministers resigned en masse. That has left some Sunnis unhappy that the Shi’ites of Hizballah brought down a Sunni prime minister and risks aggravating sectarian tensions.
It’s true [that Hizballah brought down the Hariri government] but it was purely constitutional. If one third of the ministers resign, the government resigns and that’s what happened. We cannot blame anybody. It’s a game and it applies to everybody. (See why Sunnis swear their allegiance to Mikati.)
Your critics say that you are Hizballah’s puppet.
Najib Mikati is an independent politician. They know my history. I believe in the stability of my country. I believe in unity. We have to look to the well-being of the Lebanese citizens and create prosperity in the country and you can’t create prosperity without stability.
Will you seek to improve Lebanon’s relations with Syria once your government has been formed?
Definitely? One of my first intentions is to improve relations with Syria. Not just to improve but to maintain good relations with all countries.
With Iran too?
Definitely, we will have very good relations with Iran too. Why not? As I’m looking to have very good relations with the United States. That’s Lebanon — we cannot afford not to have good friends all over the world.
There is some skepticism internationally that you will be allowed to run the country independently of the influence of Syria and Iran. How can you reassure the international community that Lebanon will not become a satellite of Syria and Iran?
My agenda is not to reassure anybody outside Lebanon. My agenda is to reassure the Lebanese that we are serious [about] going into teamwork for the good of Lebanon.
The Hariri government implicitly enshrined Hizballah’s right to bear arms by stating that Lebanon has the right to recover occupied land through any means, including resistance. What stance will your government take on Hizballah’s arms?
Exactly the same as the previous government. The same formulation.
You have said that you will honor all United Nations resolutions, including U.N. Security Council Resolution 1757 which established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Does that mean that you will not seek to cancel the protocol between Lebanon and the U.N. Security Council thereby terminating Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal?
We cannot cancel any tribunal. Whatever exists exists.
You cannot cancel the tribunal, but you could possibly annul the protocol defining Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal. Will you do so?
If I want to change anything about the process of the tribunal related to Lebanon, it has to be done in dialogue and with the consensus of all Lebanese.
It is said that you are obliged to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the tribunal as payment for the endorsement of your nomination as prime minister by Hizballah and its allies.
They say that because the other parties always want to prejudge me. I don’t want to go into [this] unfruitful “you say,” “I say,” “you say,” “I say.” Judge my actions.
But if you do not end cooperation with the tribunal, perhaps you will suffer the same fate as your predecessor, Saad Hariri, and face the collapse of your government.
If I see that I’m not saving the country to the best of my ability, I will step down.
What is your assessment of the upheavals we are witnessing around the region?
So far it’s not so clear. Is it the changing of a regime or something else [bigger] coming in the future? We need time to see how these countries are going to face — real democracy. Are they capable of making a real democracy? Or will whoever is chosen create this republican monarchy again [e.g., a president passing on the title to a son]?
What impact do you think the revolts in the Arab world will have on Lebanon?
Lebanon is the only place where you have an ex-president, an ex-prime minister, an ex-[parliamentary] speaker — so the process of democracy is well maintained and I don’t see any problems for Lebanon at this stage.Time