Mikati trying to isolate Lebanon from Syria’s uprising, interview


Some billionaires prefer to while away their time on yachts or Caribbean isles. Others breed racehorses or build foundations. Mikati chose to dive into Lebanon’s cutthroat political world.

Interview by Babak Dehghanpisheh

Najib Mikati, a 55-year-old Sunni Muslim, who made a fortune in the telecom sector and today is ranked among the richest men in the world, may seem a strange bedfellow for Hizbullah, a Shiite group best known for its militancy and pious asceticism. But the Grand Serail—the palatial seat of government set on a hill overlooking Beirut—has long been the site of unlikely and, some would say, unholy alliances. By law, the prime minister has to be a Sunni; eager to oust then–prime minister Saad Hariri, Hizbullah and its political bloc earlier this year nominated Mikati for the job, a decision that was met with derision first, and then with howls of betrayal among Mikati’s former allies. Cynical observers of Lebanese power plays—and there are many—believed that Hizbullah favored Mikati because it saw him as a pliable figure who’d bury the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s indictments in the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, killed by a bomb in 2005. Now, as unrest has worsened across the border in Syria, some have questioned Mikati’s business ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. NEWSWEEK sought some answers.

Are you worried that the unrest in Syria will spill over into Lebanon?

No … What I’m trying to do is create a kind of wall between what’s happening in Syria and any implication here on the Lebanese side … I’m trying to say, “Please, this is an internal Syrian issue. Let us take care of our own agenda; take care of our own problems.”

You’ve had business ties with Assad in the past. Are you still in touch with him? Do you talk?

Yes, we were friends. Unfortunately, now he’s so busy. [I haven’t had] the chance to see him or even talk to him.

Some Syrian opposition groups have criticized you for supporting Assad.

That’s politics.

Some analysts predict that Hizbullah will attempt a military takeover of Lebanon if the Assad regime falls.

This is a very hypothetical issue.

Your critics have called you “Hizbullah’s candidate.” Your reaction?

In the beginning, they put this label of Hizbullah [on me]. But … we’re taking our decisions independently.

You don’t take Hizbullah’s interests into account?

We listen to everybody.

When the Special Tribunal for Lebanon issued indictments in the assassination of Hariri, you said you would follow up. But in early August, the prosecutor general said no suspects have been found or arrested. What is the government doing?

The relevant authorities have been looking for the various people on a daily basis. And they already submitted a detailed report about their findings. I believe it’s now up to the court to decide if what we did is right and what we have to do next.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently said that even if it took 300 years, nobody from Hizbullah would be arrested. Did that undermine the work of your government?

It’s his point of view. We have complete freedom of speech … He has the right to say whatever he wants.

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