Lebanese billionaire Najib Mikati built his fortune by investing in telephone networks as civil war raged. Now, as the country’s next prime minister, he may need his talent for connecting people to avoid further conflict.
Mikati won the backing of lawmakers last week to lead the nation after Saad Hariri’s government collapsed amid a dispute with the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement over a United Nations inquiry into the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s father. Mikati got support from Hezbollah and its allies, and opponents claim he will yield to their demands.
“I have a friendship with Hezbollah and I also have contacts outside of Lebanon, but it doesn’t mean I follow anyone’s agenda,” Mikati, 55, said in an interview at his Beirut office. “My own agenda is going to be followed and that agenda is to maintain very good relations with the international community and Lebanon has to fulfill its commitments.”
The wrangling over Lebanon’s involvement in the UN-backed tribunal threatens a return to sectarian violence in a country that emerged from a 15-year civil war in 1990.
Rafiq Hariri was killed along with 22 others in a roadside bomb in Beirut in 2005. The country since then has witnessed at least seven political assassinations, fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, and quashed civil unrest that killed about 80 people three years ago.
“The tribunal is the very reason this crisis erupted in the first place,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah and a research adviser at the Doha Institute in Qatar. “In Lebanon power doesn’t lie in the government, it’s in military strength and Hezbollah has that.”
While Mikati has said he wants to approach the tribunal “in a calm manner as part of a national dialogue,” his first task is to form a stable government as leaders across the region monitor the civil unrest in Egypt that’s left 150 people dead.
Hariri and his pro-western Future Movement have said they were betrayed by how Mikati came to power and wouldn’t take part in an administration headed by anyone backed by Hezbollah and its allies, or one that would break ties with the UN tribunal.
Hezbollah brought down the government on Jan. 12 as it sought to halt the UN inquiry. It alleges the tribunal was instigated by the U.S. and Israel to target the group, which denies involvement in the killing, along with Syria, which supports the group. An indictment filed last month by the UN prosecutor is being reviewed by a court in the Netherlands.
Mikati, who served as a caretaker premier once in 2005, and Hariri were allies in the last parliamentary elections in 2009, when Hariri’s pro-Western coalition formed a unity government.
Hariri received “assurances” that he had the backing of Mikati when Lebanese President Michel Suleiman held talks with lawmakers last month to designate a new premier after the collapse of Hariri’s government, said a source close to Hariri who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
“I came here through a democratic process and I will follow the constitution,” Mikati said in the Jan. 27 interview at his office. “I don’t want to go into any kind of a confrontation with anybody especially in this difficult time.”
Mikati, a graduate of the American University of Beirut, is worth $2.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine. The six-foot-four-inch entrepreneur founded Investcom, which runs phone networks in emerging markets, with his brother Taha in 1982. MTN Group Ltd., Africa’s largest mobile-phone operator, bought the company in 2006 for $5.5 billion.
The two brothers, from the northern port city of Tripoli, run M1 Group, a company whose holdings include real estate investments in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, as well as the Geneva-based Baboo airline and French retailer Faconnable.
Mikati, who is married with three children, started his frontline political career as minister for public works and transport in 1998, and plans to foster “stability, security and prosperity,” he said.
“People are asking about what I will do for the tribunal, but no one is asking about what I will do for the day-to-day living needs of citizens,” Mikati said.
The economy is forecast to grow 5 percent this year, slowing from 8 percent in 2010 and 9 percent in 2009, the International Monetary Fund said in an October report. Even with the political turmoil this month, Lebanon’s benchmark BLOM Stock Index is up 0.2 percent in 2011.
“There’s no panic,” said Cyril Haddad, head of trading at Beirut-based Ahli Investment Group SAL. “I don’t see any kind of a sell off or economic impact now or happening in the future.”
Mikati, a Sunni Muslim who prays every morning before exercising and reading the news on his bedside iPad, also is tasked with reassuring the U.S. government and neighboring countries as well as the markets.
The U.S. and Israel classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The Shiite group won popularity by helping drive out an occupying Israeli army in 2000 after almost two decades, and fought a war against Israel in 2006.
“The larger the role played by Hezbollah in this government, the more problematic it is for the relationship between the United States and Lebanon,” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said in Washington last month.
While Syria and Saudi Arabia traditionally have been the powerbrokers in Lebanon, the new premier also plans closer ties with the U.S. and western Europe, he said.
“I am keen to maintain very good relations and develop the relationship with the United States,” Mikati said. “If they have any worries, or a preconceived or distorted image, this will be clear soon after forming this government and let them judge based on our performance and actions.”
Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s 12-member bloc in parliament, said after meeting Mikati on Jan. 27 that the Shiite group hadn’t made any demands on the prime minister or imposed any conditions on him regarding the UN tribunal.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said since July he expects the judge to indict some of his members.
“Najib is a good listener and he knows how to convince people,” said Joe Issa-El-Khoury, a friend and adviser in Beirut. “He felt we were getting into a deadlock and saw that we were going to hit a wall and that frustrated him.”