In Lebanon’s high-stakes elections, absence of Sunni party adds to uncertainty

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BEIRUT – When Lebanon votes in the legislative elections on Sunday, one major party will not be on the ballot: the Future Movement, led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, with close ties to the United States and Saudi Arabia .

In January, Hariri announced his resignation from politics and said his party would not contest elections, citing what he called growing Iranian influence in Lebanon, sectarianism and “the erosion of ‘State “. His party currently holds 20 of the 128 seats in parliament.

The Future Movement and its allies were part of a pro-Saudi bloc whose rallying cry is the disarmament of Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian militant group and political party which, along with its allies, currently holds the majority of seats in parliament. . Today, Hariri’s withdrawal from politics has created a vacuum that could benefit Hezbollah while leaving Hariri’s large base of supporters unsure where to vote.

From 2020: Lebanon appoints Saad Hariri Prime Minister, almost a year after his resignation

The developments have cast uncertainty over a high-stakes election. Their outcome could determine whether Lebanon, in the midst of its worst financial crisis, receives help from the international community – at a time when some governments, such as France, have been reluctant to fund a government and politicians widely seen as corrupt.

The polls are also being closely watched by millions of Lebanese at home and abroad, whether they are ousting members of the widely ridiculed political class. But few in Lebanon expect much change.

As parties vie for Hariri’s many Sunni Muslims, one leader has stepped forward aggressively to fill the void: Samir Geagea, who rose to prominence during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war as leader right-wing Christian war. Geagea has been emboldened by his close relationship with Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s longtime ally, and what he claims are pledges of support from other Persian Gulf and Western countries if his party wins a parliamentary majority .

His party, the Lebanese Forces, along with an allied party, emerged with its reputation relatively unscathed after the litany of calamities in Lebanon over the past two years. Citizens are reeling from an economic collapse and banking crisis, blamed on government mismanagement and corruption, and the trauma of a massive explosion that tore through the capital, Beirut, in August 2020, killing over 200 people and damaging much of the central city.

No senior Lebanese Forces official was implicated in the negligence that led to the explosion. When protesters flooded the streets in 2019, demanding the ouster of political leaders, Geagea announced the resignation of his party’s four ministers from government.

Protesters dismissed his decision as a political ploy. Geagea is one of six leaders many consider Lebanon’s absolute rulers – deep-rooted figures who stand in the way of even modest reform.

But even Geagea’s critics admit that its ministers are known for their impeccable work: Salem Zahran, a pro-Hezbollah analyst, said in a 2018 tweet: “Give credit where credit is due, the performance of their ministers is good and [shies] away from corruption.

During an interview at his home in the Lebanese mountains, Geagea claimed that all the problems facing Lebanon, from government corruption to unemployment, could be solved by a parliament controlled by his party.

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“If a government has the political will,” he said, then the international community, including countries like France and Saudi Arabia, will help the government. He also claimed that promises had been made to help the country if a “serious” government was formed, but he did not specify what kind of aid had been promised or by which country.

A trustworthy government, he said, would be able to continue the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund that are necessary for Lebanon’s economic revival and would also unblock stranded aid from France.

All Lebanon needs, Geagea repeated, is “a radical change of power”.

The Lebanese Forces have presented themselves as a party “for all Lebanese”, and among its supporters, hopes abound that Saudi political support for Geagea will attract Hariri voters.

Maha Yahya, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, said there was a chance that Geagea could get more seats from a growing base of Christian and Sunni voters, many of whom see his party as “the only political party able to show up.” to Hezbollah in the street, but also in parliament.

But when it comes to the Sunni vote, she said, she suspects ‘a good chunk’ of Future Movement loyalists won’t care, despite pleas from religious leaders to come forward and vote. .

“None of the representatives of the Sunni community who are standing today in the legislative elections has [Hariri’s] kind of national support or are seen as having the kind of ability to be community leaders, at least not at this stage,” she continued.

Whatever happens, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy, appears to have turned its back on Hariri, its longtime Sunni ally in Lebanon. A widely circulated op-ed published in early May in the Saudi newspaper Okaz accused Hariri of “throwing himself in Tehran’s lap” and partly blamed him for Lebanon’s collapse.

The editorial, which appeared in the press tightly controlled by the Saudi government, said Hariri dispersed the vote by calling on his supporters to boycott the elections.

“Abstaining from voting in the next elections means that Sunni seats will go to the allies of Hezbollah, the historical enemy not only of Sunnis but of all Lebanese who trusted Saad,” wrote the author, Mohammed al – Said.

Hariri’s attempts to act as a kind of peacekeeper in Lebanon’s fractured political system – including defending Hezbollah – have contributed to his deteriorating ties with Saudi Arabia. He was briefly detained by the Saudis in 2017 and forced to tender his resignation, which he later rescinded. He finally resigned two years later after protests swept the country.

The Saudis continued to punish Lebanon. Last April, Riyadh announced it was halting agricultural and food imports from Lebanon following a spike in drug attacks in the kingdom, as shipments from Lebanon frequently concealed millions of pills. Captagon – amphetamine tablets whose production analysts and law enforcement officials are linked to Hezbollah.

As the Saudis weigh their next options in Lebanon, many Hariri supporters seem unresponsive to pleas from other parties. “Sheikh Saad is not showing up, and we don’t see anyone else representing us,” said Samer Hammoud, 40, referring to Hariri. “We boycott”

Nader Durgham in Beirut and Suzy Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.

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