Sunnis compete for minds and hearts in post-Hariri Lebanon

Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri withdrew his candidacy for prime minister last July after failing to form a cabinet. In January 2022, he announced that he would retire from politics completely and not run in the next elections, creating a big void in the Lebanese Sunni community, led by Hariri and his father since 1992. Many are struggling to fill the void, including Hariri’s older brother, Bahaa.

Subsequently, former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora held a press conference in Beirut on February 23, calling on Sunni Muslims not to boycott the country’s upcoming legislative elections scheduled for May 15, 2022. Sunnis currently hold 27 of the 64 Muslim seats in Lebanon’s Chamber, with another 64 held by the country’s Christians.

Voting is a national duty, Siniora said, an obligation for every Lebanese in order to loosen Hezbollah’s grip, otherwise “the Lebanese state’s freedom of speech will not be possible”.

A leading economist and seasoned politician, Siniora was the right-hand man of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Five months later, he became Prime Minister until 2009, when he was succeeded by Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad al-Hariri.

The young Hariri led Lebanese Sunnis for the next 13 years until he finally retired from politics last January. Blaming his decision – at least in part – on the tutelage of Hezbollah, Hariri said that neither he nor any member of his Future Movement will stand in the legislative elections in May.

Saad Hariri led Lebanese Sunnis for 13 years, until he finally retired from politics last January.

Other reasons Hariri walked away from parliament include a lack of funds to finance a national campaign and a lack of support from Saudi Arabia – the traditional bosses of the Hariri family in Lebanese politics. The Saudis believe Hariri is being too soft on Hezbollah, which is why they did not approve of his latest attempt to form a government in 2020-21.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, right, meets with Bahaa Hariri, the eldest son of slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in Rome, Italy, Feb. 21, 2022. (Bahaa Hariri Press Office via AP)

Since then, the kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS) has repeatedly refused to grant him an audience. This also explains why Hariri is not as rich as before. Last summer, he said it bluntly on television: “I was a millionaire, but I’m not anymore.”

Hariri’s sudden withdrawal from politics sent shock waves through the entire Sunni Muslim community, which since 1992, and for a good three decades, had been led by his father and then by him. Sunnis suddenly found themselves headless, helpless and vulnerable, explaining why Fouad al-Siniora and other Sunni leaders actively tried to reassure them that all was not lost and that they could still be saved by as a community.

Earlier, Lebanese Grand Mufti Abdul Latif Deryan also said that the upcoming elections will not be boycotted by Lebanese Sunnis. This statement was endorsed by current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, another Sunni heavyweight who returned to the post of Prime Minister in September 2021, only to announce on March 14 that he would also not run again.

The ambitions of Bahaa al-Hariri

One person who didn’t seem worried about Saad al-Hariri’s early retirement was his older brother, Bahaa al-Hariri, a business tycoon living in Saudi Arabia. Hours after his brother’s announcement, Bahaa came out with a televised address declaring himself the rightful heir to the Hariri family, while suggesting he was Lebanon’s new Sunni leader. The doors of the Hariri family, he noted, “will never be closed”.

A graduate of Boston University, Bahaa, 56, has never been active in politics. Instead, he has focused on maintaining and expanding his father’s business empire since 2005. That changed in 2019, when he vocally supported the October 2019 revolution that toppled the third and last firm of his brother.

In 2019, Bahaa vocally supported the October 2019 Revolution which toppled his brother’s third and final cabinet.

More recently, Bahaa announced that he would join the next parliament through a coalition called “Sawa Li Lubnan”. Billboards have already been set up across Beirut, as activists go door to door, appealing to voters with charity – such as delivering heating fuel to needy families. Bahaa himself, however, remains physically absent, speaking to potential voters through televised addresses while delegating his childhood friend, Safa Kalo, as his parliamentary candidate.

[Prospects for Real Change are Still Dim in Lebanon]

[Power Dynamics in Lebanon Ahead of Parliamentary Elections]

Although Saad al-Hariri is in financial ruin, Bahaa is clearly not. In 2021, Forbes estimated it at $2.1 billion. This wealth allows him to buy allegiance, which is essential to the patron-client system of Middle Eastern politics. Bahaa can also finance a real election campaign and finance both an online channel and a radio station.

This all comes after his brother was forced to shut down their father’s television, Future TV, and the daily, Al-Mustaqbal. Bahaa is even reaching out to former employees of the two outlets, who were fired without pay by his brother due to Saad’s financial difficulties.

He also engages with prominent anti-Hezbollah figures, such as Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Raii, while demanding the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the monopolization of arms. in the hands of the Lebanese state and to alienate Hezbollah from the Lebanese-Israeli opposition. border.

A divided house

For obvious reasons, Saad is unhappy with his brother’s campaign, although he has personally kept quiet about his brother’s forays into politics. Instead, Saad pushed his trusted friend and ally, and former interior minister, Nouhad Machnouk, to voice his concerns, apparently on a personal basis.

Saad Hariri is unhappy with his brother’s campaign.

Last January, Machnouk declared that Bahaa had come to “take revenge” on his brother, adding that he was “parachuted” into the Lebanese political scene, of which he knows nothing. Machnouk also suggested that Bahaa has nothing to offer the Lebanese people, saying, “His ambitions are completely unrealistic.”

Siniora made a similar comment last month: “There is absolutely no inheritance process [in the Sunni community]. Saad al-Hariri is always present,” he said, adding that the retired politician can come back whenever he wants. “We will be by his side and with him.

Under Rafik and Saad al-Hariri, the Future Movement was traditionally represented in 10 of Lebanon’s 15 districts, including Beirut, Sidon, Akkar, Tripoli, Zahlé and the Bekka Valley.

Bahaa knows he can’t tackle all of these neighborhoods on day one. However, it focuses on Beirut, Sidon, Akkar and the Bekka Valley which is Hezbollah’s traditional powerhouse. Bahaa is trying to get a breakthrough by naming the Shia opposition among civil society groups. The real battle, however, will be in Beirut, the capital.

The Battle of Beirut

It is now certain that none of Saad al-Hariri’s allies in the Future Movement will run for seats in Beirut. Without money, members of the Future Movement do not have the financial means to administer a city-wide campaign or provide welfare and assistance to voters, especially those in dire need of support. economic aid.

Former Prime Minister Tammam Salam has announced that he will not stand for election either. Salam is a scion of a prominent Sunni political family that has dominated Beirut politics since Ottoman times. No more than his relative Nawaf Salam, judge at the International Court of Justice, whom many had tried to push into the race, in order to stand up to Hezbollah. Instead of the Salam, Mashnouk and Saad Hariri, a wide range of Sunni newcomers began to emerge, all from prominent Beirut families and with a view to representation in the Lebanese capital.

A wide range of Sunni newcomers began to emerge.

The list includes Ghayda Itani, president of a leading cancer NGO; Sarah al-Yafi, granddaughter of former Prime Minister Abdullah al-Yafi; Nouhad Domat, professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB); and Walid Fakhr al-Din, a famous civil rights activist.

Fouad Makhzoumi, a self-made tycoon and parliamentarian, is also actively opposed to Beirut. He issued a statement on Twitter shortly after Hariri stepped down last January, promising that the Sunni community would not be orphaned. He has traditionally criticized the Hariris, but also Hezbollah. On the same day, he described Hezbollah as a militia that should be disarmed, as it threatens the security of Lebanese citizens.

On the other hand, Hezbollah tries to influence the Sunni vote in other parts of the country, realizing that it cannot take the city of Beirut. In the Bekka Valley, he campaigned with Abdul Rahim Murad, a wealthy philanthropist, university owner and former defense minister. In Tripoli, the Shiite group works with Faisal Karami, a member of a respected political family that produced three of Lebanon’s former prime ministers.

Due to its financial clout, majority support and military might, Hezbollah will undoubtedly win the Shia vote – literally unchallenged by its allies in the Amal movement.

However, the real battle will be between the Sunnis of Beirut and the Christians of Mount Lebanon, who are also currently divided between President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces.

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