x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Lebanon needs to determine its own destiny

Lebanon is the orphan child of the Arab Spring, in part because its politicians are too little devoted to the national interest, and too often proxies for outside influences.

The crowds that took to the street during the Arab Spring have moved from protests to polling places, but one regional player has stood seemingly unchanged, to its detriment. As Syria simmers and Egypt votes, the future of Lebanon is less volatile, but no less uncertain.

Strong government is not a Lebanese speciality - this country of 4.1 million people is beset by proxy actors which have usurped much of the country's sovereign authority on behalf of other regional players. A land with its own turbulent past, Lebanon has this year seen other countries fight for new constitutions and elect new governments. And yet, Lebanon's leaders remain stuck in the past.

The latest manifestation of this awkward fact is the stalling over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) set up by the United Nations to investigate the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, who had been Lebanon's prime minister until four months before he was killed. Many suspect that Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, was behind the killing. Last June the tribunal named four Hizbollah members in the killing. Hizbollah darkly denounces the STL as a western and Israeli plot.

Hizbollah dominates the current government, and yet Nejib Mikati, the current prime minister, has pledged to step down if the government repudiates its long-promised obligation to pay 49 per cent of the STL's costs, some US$32 million (Dh117.4m). A cabinet crisis looms.

The murdered leader's son Saad Hariri, who was himself prime minister, has a solid claim on the leadership of Lebanon's diverse opposition. But Mr Hariri, who as one might expect supports the STL, had to leave Lebanon in June for "security reasons". Strongly supported by Saudi Arabia, he has been living mostly in that country. This week he disappointed supporters by failing to appear at an opposition rally in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

One can hardly blame Mr Hariri for his caution. But it remains to be seen how he, or almost anyone else in Lebanon's leadership, can wrest back the interests of the country, cutting the strings being pulled from elsewhere. Syria's turmoil may offer some hope of more independence for Lebanon, although the larger shadow of Iran would still loom over Lebanon even if Syria's regime were toppled.

The losers in all this, as ever, are the people of Lebanon. Only movement by the country's politicians to assert true sovereignty can give the Lebanese the sense of pride and independence that their Middle Eastern neighbours are currently experiencing.