Lebanon’s political establishment begins a disturbing new chapter

As if Lebanon needs more chaos, one of the country’s most iconic leaders is ditching politics and taking his Sunni party with him, handing another victory to Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri made the surprise announcement of his political future from his home on January 24, while urging his Future Movement not to field any candidates in the upcoming legislative elections, scheduled for May 15.

“I am convinced that there is no room for positive opportunities for Lebanon due to Iranian influence, our indecisiveness with the international community, internal divisions and sectarianism,” Hariri said.

This announcement marks the end of a political dynasty long supported by Saudi Arabia, which saw in Hariri, and in particular his father Rafic Hariri, assassinated in 2005, an opportunity to shape the trajectory of Lebanon.

Experts say Hariri’s decision is proof that Saudi Arabia has given up on him and Lebanon.

“Efforts to change the political scene through Hariri have failed, so there is no point in continuing to support Saad Hariri and his family and these very expensive Gulf investments in Lebanon,” said Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science and international affairs in Lebanon. American University.

Relations between Lebanon and the Gulf states collapsed in late October 2021 following critical remarks by then Lebanese Minister of Information George Kordahi on Saudi Arabia’s war efforts in Yemen. neighbour. With the severance of diplomatic relations and the suspension of Lebanese imports, the crisis has exacerbated a series of political and economic crises that have brought the country to its knees.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud later told an interviewer that the Kingdom had simply used Kordahi’s comments as a pretext to deal with a larger issue: Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon, a Lebanese Shia militant party long backed by Saudi Arabia. Arabia’s regional sworn enemy, Iran.

Critics of Hariri say the Sunni politician has failed to take on Hezbollah, instead focusing on his own personal ambitions for the job.

“It would have been futile for the Saudis to expect him to neutralize Hezbollah and suppress it,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “He couldn’t do it. … But he didn’t take a stand against Hezbollah.

In his bid to secure the premiership, critics say, Hariri made a series of accommodations and concessions that benefited Hezbollah and its allies at the expense of Saudi and Sunni interests in the country.

“To take a stand against Hezbollah would have meant forfeiting the office of prime minister, and he did not want to waste that opportunity,” Khashan said.

Through political alliances and Iranian support, Hezbollah has gained immense power and influence in Lebanon. With an unrivaled paramilitary wing and an array of services that fill government gaps, many consider it the most powerful entity in the country, a state within a state.

The Lebanese government’s recent response to a Kuwaiti initiative to change diplomatic relations with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, reflects how entrenched Hezbollah is in Lebanon. In his statement, Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib reportedly said that Lebanon would not “hand over the weapons of Hezbollah” or end its existence.

While Kuwait and other Gulf states have yet to respond to Lebanon’s position, experts say Hariri’s downfall signals that the countries have abandoned Lebanon to Hezbollah and Iran.

Map of the Middle East, Lebanon

Middle East map. Photo Credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Zeke/Wikimedia and Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay

“If the Saudis are present in Lebanon, they will have to accept that they play a minor role and that the main power broker in Lebanese politics is Iran. So the Saudis say to themselves: ‘Why bother and invest in Lebanon if we are going to be a junior player in this country?’ said Khashan. “As long as Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah, the Saudis see no role in it. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, the Saudis have abandoned Lebanon and completely abandoned it.

In the absence of Hariri and his Gulf backer, a worrying and opportunistic power vacuum has formed that domestic and foreign actors will seek to fill.

In a country defined by sectarianism, where the political system is designed to represent Lebanon’s range of religious communities, some fear that the long-entrenched political elite will use the removal of the most popular Sunni leader and his party as a pretext to postpone the legislative elections scheduled for May.

Speculation abounds that Hariri’s decision may be part of a deliberate strategy by the government and that he may, in fact, reverse his decision later. But if elections are held and Hariri does not return, his exit from politics raises the question: who will replace him as a representative of the Sunni community?

Although Saad’s brother, Bahaa, last Friday announced his intention to carry on the Hariri legacy, it seems unlikely that he will get the degree of support that Saad and Rafic enjoy, and the foreign support that is crucial for a leadership successful.

“Who will support him? No one will support him, no real great power will support him,” Salamey said. “He’s going to fight against Hezbollah and Syria, he has no chance. He will fight against heavyweights.

“Lebanon will now be a disputed place between three major players: Syria – the major player – Iran and Israel,” Salamey continued. “These three major groups will take over and the Sunni constituency will be divided between these three different camps.”

Imad Salamey, Lebanon, 2021

Imad Salamey, 2021. Photo credit: Isalamey / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

With Sunni voters up for grabs, Salamey said politicians were unlikely to try to postpone the election.

“If Sunnis are fragmented, it is an opportunity for other sectarian groups to take advantage of the situation and marginalize Sunni political leaders and give that share of power to their respective confederation group,” he said. declared. “There are so many reasons now for elections to take place that Hariri is out.”

Meanwhile, independent parties that have emerged from grassroots protest movements against the government in recent years are hoping the opening will give them a chance to win seats in parliament.

“Sunnis in Lebanon are not just Saad Hariri,” Khodor Eido, an activist widely involved in the protest movement, wrote in an email. “We have successful Sunnis who have great political backgrounds and great potential to lead in Lebanon.”

Eido and others see Hariri’s removal as a sign of success in their efforts, which since October 2019 have pushed to demand a complete overhaul of the political establishment.

“We aim to eliminate them all, not only Saad Hariri, but also Saad Hariri [is] something we are proud of, since we took to the streets and said we don’t want them all, all politicians are criminals,” said Roy Boukhary, another prominent activist.

“The revolution played a part in Hariri’s resignation in 2019,” Eido said, referring to the end of Hariri’s tenure as prime minister following massive protests that year, “and yes, I believe the uprising played a role in Hariri’s decision to leave. Politics. He failed to lead several governments and offered no solutions to his own people and to the entire Lebanese population. He thought that by giving people boxes of food and money, people would no longer claim their rights.

Aerial view, Beirut, Lebanon, 2015

Aerial view of Beirut, 2015. Photo credit: marviikad / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last year, as prime minister-designate, Hariri attempted to form a new cabinet to address the political and economic crises that were pushing people deeper into poverty. When President Michel Aoun rejected Hariri’s proposal in July, he resigned and then reportedly left for the United Arab Emirates, from where he recently returned.

His resignation ushered in a new prime minister, billionaire Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s richest man, who finally managed to form a cabinet in September. But despite Mikati’s promises to lift Lebanon out of the abyss, the country remains overwhelmed by problems. The United Nations reports that more than 80% of the country’s population lives in multidimensional poverty. The World Bank has blamed the country’s political leaders for causing one of the world’s worst economic crises since 1850. The conditions have prompted mass emigration and growing concerns about further collapse.

“Lebanon is no more,” lamented Mahmoud Mahersayeh, a Hariri supporter. “We are dying.”

Sitting with his children and friends in a cafe in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Beirut, the 40-year-old father described his desire to move abroad in search of a better life for himself and his family. He sees a dark future for his country.

“Without Saad, a war between the Lebanese will occur,” he said.

For now, however, he is stuck in Lebanon. When it comes time to vote – if elections are held – he said he would not participate if Hariri did not show up.

“Saad Hariri or nobody.”

  • Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist who writes about Asia and the Middle East. He has covered US politics, military affairs in the Indo-Pacific, and economic and political crises in Lebanon.

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