By Mohammad Aslam
Saad Hariri—the Saudi-born son of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri—has been on something of a speaking tour lately.
The billionaire former prime minister has repeatedly tried to make the case that Lebanon’s incumbent government has put the country in harm’s way because of its stance on the conflict in neighboring Syria.
The premise of his argument is that by allowing certain factions that make up the government (a reference to his arch-rival, Hezbollah) to side with the Syrian authorities in the fight against rebel forces, the government has exacerbated tensions among the country’s own differing sectarian groups.
But by conspicuously omitting his own position with regard to the Syrian crisis–– where he openly backs his domestic and regional allies in supporting a crude rebellion against what still remains a sovereign government––Hariri comes across as a little more than disingenuous.
But perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Despite his self-imposed exile, the very essence of Hariri’s political being has always been driven by a single-minded agenda: to accumulate power in a deeply flawed sectarian system that only permits Sunni Muslims like himself to be Prime Minister.
It began in May 2008.
Incensed that the popular Islamic movement Hezbollah remained the most powerful military and political force in the country—allowing increased Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon and monopolizing decisions about war and peace with respect to Israel—Hariri’s government set about unilaterally restricting Hezbollah’s military and intelligence activities.
The initiative was backed up with the deployment of armed party goons on the streets of the capital, but Hariri fell flat on his face when Hezbollah countered by taking over large swaths of the city and forcing what remained of his government into an embarrassing retreat.
But with the primary objective of pursuing power not lost on his mind, Hariri compromised himself into another lease on political life by heading a coalition government that included Hezbollah and pro-Syrian factions in 2009.
Yet after a Hezbollah-instigated dethroning of his government—following a series of disputes centering around the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Hariri’s insistence that Hezbollah members were involved in the assassination of his father—he was once again sent packing.
And nearly three years in the wilderness, the uprisings that began in Syria last year must have seemed like a godsend to Hariri.
Almost immediately placing his bets on the demise of the Assad regime, Hariri banked on Hezbollah losing its arms shipments and political support from the regime in Damascus, which he thought would weaken the party and ease his own return to politics.
But perhaps Hariri has once again failed to properly think through the consequences of his actions.
In response to the infiltration of fighters and arms from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli into the Syrian battle zone, Hezbollah has apparently shored up the adjacent Syrian border area with Lebanon, which has culminated into some tactical victories for the Syrian regime.
If Hariri calculated that supporting the Syrian rebels would be a quick fix for weakening Hezbollah, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Tripoli, a bastion of Hariri-allied Sunni power in the country, has witnessed a dangerous rise in sectarian incidents between the pro-Syrian Alawite community and their Sunni counterparts in a battle increasingly seen as an existential one for the Alawite minority.
Indeed, the infiltration of foreign arms, money, and fighters into the city has now made it a byword for radical Islamist killing and destruction.
There, the assassination of religious leaders, the scorching of western food chains following the publication of anti-Islam videos, and the general breakdown of law and order are dangerous omens for a country that has spent nearly a quarter of its existence engaged in civil war among its 18 confessions.
However, the most alarming behavior of the Hariri camp has been its reaction to the recent car bombing that killed one of his long-time allies, the head of internal intelligence General Wisam Al-Hassan.
Almost within minutes of discovering the identity of the victim—and acting more as though his murder was a loss to the Sunni community than to the state—Hariri immediately called on his supporters to protest the killing, to turn out in large numbers for the funeral, and to demand the resignation of the government.
Although the response failed to meet Hariri’s expectations, the link between his rhetoric and the escalation of tensions in the aftermath of the funeral did not go unnoticed. As new sectarian violence spills into the streets and new roadblocks pop up in the Sunni sections of Beirut and Tripoli, it is evident that Harirism has become a danger to the society it purportedly seeks to protect.
For a man whose political program has long rested on the cliché of “Lebanon for all,” it has become abundantly clear that such oration no longer matches reality.
If Hariri thought that he was somehow propitiating those killed by pressuring the government to resign—and using a group of reprobates to take to the streets in order to make this demand heard—then the sectarian repercussions have given lie to his political posturing.
Yet despite all the events of the last few weeks, it appears that sanity is prevailing in Lebanon and the status quo—despite all the pressure on it to crumble in line with the demands of the Hariri-led opposition—remains firmly in place.
As for Hariri, the pursuit of power, even at the cost of the nation’s stability, shows no sign of dissipating anytime soon.
Mohammad Aslam is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.