A week may be a long time in the politics of some countries, but six or seven years is no time at all in Lebanon. In February 2005, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed in an explosion on Beirut’s corniche, but the incident is still a raw issue that continues to cause problems for the country’s politicians.
Unfortunately, it is the whole of Lebanon that is suffering as a result, with domestic political instability combining with regional turmoil to undermine the economy.
In January, the coalition led by Saad Hariri collapsed over its dealings with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the UN body investigating the murder. Now the government of Najib Mikati is also under pressure. He managed to keep his cabinet from disintegrating in November when he paid Lebanon’s share of the STL’s costs, but further problems lie in store.
In March 2012, the current mandate of the STL will end and Beirut will be under enormous pressure to agree to the tribunal continuing its work. It will not be straightforward getting Hezbollah, which is in the cabinet, to agree, but the cost of not signing up could well be sanctions by the US and the EU.
The chances of a compromise would increase if the Syrian regime collapsed, which would remove key support for Hezbollah. In the absence of that, it is not clear what course Mikati can take, but he will need to show some deft political footwork.
The real tragedy for Lebanon is that the energy and time its political leaders expend on dealing with the STL means less time dealing with the far more important issues of the stuttering domestic economy and the slowly unfolding tragedy next door in Syria.