The Embattled Billionaire in Lebanon's Latest Storm

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Wael Hamzeh / AFP / Getty Images

Lebanon's prime minister-designate Najib Mikati arrives in Parliament at the start of consultations on the forming of a new Cabinet, on January 27, 2011, in Beirut.

Najib Mikati likes to think of himself as a one-man rescue mission. Lebanon's richest tycoon, worth an estimated $2.5 billion, he presides over an eclectic empire that spans French fashion brand Façonnable, Swiss airline Flyaboo and a major share in Telecom giant MTN — shrewd acquisitions that have earned him a steady presence on the Forbes list. On Jan. 25th, he added one more troubled asset to his portfolio: the small and fractious nation of Lebanon, whose parliament just nominated him Prime Minister.

It was called a "political coup" by onetime ally and now predecessor Saad Hariri, whose 14-month-old coalition government collapsed in January following a paralyzing debate over an international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father Rafik Hariri, who was Prime Minister at the time. Mikati is now tasked with leading a fragile and divided nation still licking its wounds from a devastating civil war whose impact rippled far beyond national borders. He did not seek the position, Mikati, 55, tells TIME. His love for Lebanon forced his hand. "When I saw what was happening in the country, the deadlock, I said it's time to stand. The real motivation is to rescue the nation."

It's not his first attempt. He was prime minister once before, in 2005, when he presided over an equally turbulent period immediately following the elder Hariri's assassination. Then Lebanon was snatched back from the brink of civil war through Mikati's well-honed talent for consensus building and compromise. These days the situation is even more perilous. When Saad Hariri's government fell, Mikati's ascension to power as a compromise candidate helped calm tensions. But over the past month, Mikati's deal-making skills have been put to the test as he attempts to knit a functioning government out of a parliament of squabbling interests and competing agendas.

Meanwhile, the findings of the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), are expected to be made public in a few weeks. If the investigations into the bombing that killed the Saudi Arabia-backed Sunni Prime Minister Hariri implicate high ranking members of Hizballah, an Iranian and Syrian-backed Shi'a party that dominates in Lebanon largely due to its well-armed militia, the country risks a descent into devastating sectarian strife. Overblown hopes that the tribunal would bring about a pro-Western realignment of forces in the Middle East and end the culture of impunity that has plagued the region have crumpled under the threat of renewed civil war. How Mikati manages this potentially explosive situation will have lasting repercussions not only in Lebanon, but the region.

Lebanon may be a small player in the Middle East, but it has long served as battle arena for the region's heavyweights. Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with the United States and France, have all battled for supremacy on its soil. As the Middle East realigns itself in the wake of serial revolutions, many actors will be eyeing Lebanon's war-prone sectarian militias once again. Mikati, who like the Hariris is a Sunni from Tripoli, is viewed with distrust by many who feel he betrayed his constituency when he joined hands with Shi'ite Hizballah. His oft-repeated assurances that he wants what is best for Lebanon along with his vague stance on the STL have won him grudging support, at least temporarily. "At the moment, Mikati has calmed the waters," says Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. "If he can keep Lebanon on course we have a real chance at continued stability. But there is a mine ahead: the STL indictments. Is it going to be huge? We don't know."

For Hizballah, the solution is simple: Disavow the tribunal. When it was first formed by the U.N. Security Council in 2007, the tribunal was welcomed by all Lebanese parties. Then, it was widely assumed that Syria, which had maintained a military presence in the country since the beginning of the civil war in 1975, would be found at fault. But a series of high profile resignations, media leaks and the near certainty that Hizballah would be fingered in some way has drawn condemnation from the group, which now denounces the tribunal as a tool of the United States and Israel and has demanded that the Lebanese government end its cooperation.

Though the tribunal's leadership has offered no details of the investigation, rumors abound that conclusions may be in part based on evidence gathered from a telecommunications network that Hizballah claims has been compromised by Israeli agents. "We all want to know who killed Hariri," says Omar Nashabe, an outspoken and independent journalist who has been covering the tribunal since its inception for the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, of which Mikati is a major shareholder. "But all these elements make me think that the tribunal is not functioning according to the highest standards of international criminal justice, and is instead functioning to serve the interests of the western powers that created it."

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