Lebanon PM Drama Over, But Can War Be Resisted For Too Long? – Analysis


It is a tall order for a small group of people, yet they are determined to lobby for a pluralist and democratic future for Lebanon.

By Anchal Vohra

The high drama surrounding the disappearance of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his resignation is finally over. On Tuesday night, minutes before the independence day on 22 November, Saad Hariri returned home and put his resignation on hold.

Hariri’s supporters celebrated and the rest heaved a sigh of relief noting an immediate threat of war had been averted. The crises in Lebanon though has at best been contained, not resolved.

But before his surprise surfacing in Paris, there were interesting developments and high tensions. In Beirut’s streets, posters were hung on pillars Hariri peeping out of them, with the words Hashtag Kulna Maek (We are with you). It is not clear who put up the posters and if the tagline is in support of Hariri or an attempt to mock the Saudi meddling in the regional politics.

“He looks like he is about to cry. Doesn’t he?” asks Joseph, a taxi driver. Joseph thinks the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the KSA held Hariri captive against his will and the look in the posters depicts Hariri’s helplessness. For once, the Lebanese seem united. Cutting across sects and religions, Joseph’s view is resonating in Lebanon.

“There is a foreign axis running this country, politicians are run by Saudis or Iran and that has to change” says Joseph, seeming flustered with the political dynamic in the country.

In the consociationalism system of governance in Lebanon, the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives of certain religious communities. The position of a President goes to a Christian, the Speaker must be a Shia and the Prime Minister a Sunni. Saudis support the Sunni leadership, while Iran backs Shia Hizbollah. The struggle for pre-eminence between the two Islamic powers plays out in Lebanon and hinders it from being pluralist.

Hizbollah: Small state’s powerful militia 

Over the last decade of wars in the region, Iran has amplified its influence in Syria and Iraq with help to and from the Hizbollah. A political party and a militia group, the Hizbollah have gained much war experience and enhanced their abilities to take on the enemies.

During the same course of events, the ideology and the men of the kingdom have lost out. Saudi intervention in Yemen — including its latest move to block the ports which are a life line for the war ravaged nation — has been globally condemned. In Syria, the groups supported by Saudi Arabia have lost all credibility and ended up tarnishing the reputation of the initially moderate and democratically minded protestors.

Feeling belittled at Iran’s stupendous rise and the growth of Hizbollah into a formidable force has the Saudis scrambling for ideas. Hariri’s resignation is a part of that episode while Hizbollah’s spin doctors have alternative theories.

According to Mohd Obeid, former director general of the Ministry of Information in Lebanon and a Hizbollah insider, Hariri was ‘made’ to resign for two reasons.

“Hariri was kept in Riyadh because he is close to Late King Abdullah’s son,” says Obeid. Late King Abdullah’s son, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, is one of the 11 royals arrested in the purge. His cousin Mohd bin Salman or MbS is the new crown prince and he ordered the purge to consolidate power under him ostensibly to curb corruption. According to Mr. Obeid, Hariri’s loyalties would lie with King Abdullah’s son Prince Miteb and not MbS because of his father Rafiq Hariri’s close ties with King Abdullah. The former king helped end the 16-year long civil war in Lebanon through ‘Tiaf agreement’ which was negotiated in the city of Taif in the Saudi Kingdom.

“Hariri is thick with Prince Miteb Bin Abdullah, he could have sided with him on the question of succession in the future and Prince Salman didn’t want that,” argues Obeid.

Authorised by a tight lipped Hizbollah to speak, Obeid summarised the external foreign policy goals the kingdom intended on achieving by Hariri’s resignation. He says the Saudis were thinking the pressure on Iran and Hizbollah for the sake of stability in Lebanon would mean their support to Houthi rebels in Yemen would stop.

“I can’t say what will happen in Yemen but in Lebanon, back door diplomacy with France will ensure Hariri’s return,” he says with some relief.

Mohd Obeid’s claim came true as Hariri’s personal jet landed in Beirut on Tuesday night.

Backed by the efforts of Egypt, a country close to Saudi Arabia, France played an instrumental role in convincing Riyadh to let go of the Lebanese PM. Emmanual Macron’s surprise visit to the kingdom and an invite to Hariri to visit Paris, first led to speculation that the former colonial power was offering exile to Hariri but Macron denied the reports. The plan was weaved by the Christian President of Lebanon Michael Aoun who is an ally of the Hizbollah and close to France. Sources in the Lebanese government say, Macron whispered in the ears of the Saudi monarchy the decision to keep Hariri in Riyadh had backfired.

Instead of weakening the Hizbollah, the Saudi manoeuvre made them look good. Hizbollah’s chief Nasrallah carefully weighed his words as he appealed for calm and warned against being incited to commit violence.

Fragile stability

Elias Farhat, a retired general with the Lebanese army and a political commentator, has a different perspective on the Hariri saga. He feels Hariri has become a sorry figure and predicts Saudi misadventure will lead to electoral dividends for his party in the upcoming polls in May next year. The last parliamentary elections were held as far back as 2009.

“His party was doing badly but now to maintain order, the political adversaries are likely to give him an easy ride in the elections,” says General Farhat.

It is hard to predict a growth or a dent in Hariri’s electoral fortunes at the moment. As a representative of the Sunnis in the parliament and the son of the popular former PM Rafiq Hariri, Saad Hariri does command loyalty of the voters in his sect especially at a time the Sunnis are apprehensive of the consequences of an unprecedented rise in Hizbollah’s stature.

In Tripoli in north Lebanon, Hariri’s gloomy posters disappear and give way to homes painted in white and blue which are the colours of Hariri’s political party. It is an evident display of allegiance in a city which has seen recurring riots between the Sunnis of Bab al Tabbaneh and the Alawites of Jabal Mohsin.

At the demarcation line between the two neighbourhoods, Lebanese soldiers stand guard, and an NGO has opened a peace cafe. Men of both sects, some who even fought each other in the riots, collect here to reconcile. There is an effort by both to mend fences but the tension, abetted by the short sightedness of the politicians, is palpable.

The founder of the cafe, Lea Baroudi, points to the fragile sectarian balance and talks about the repercussions of an active Saudi-Iran conflict on the ground.

“There is change since the last riots in 2013, but sectarian divisions are still there and these are kept alive by the regional powers,” she says. “We are in a delicate situation.”

The fear gripping the Lebanese is that the proxy war may push Lebanon off the cliff. The history of a bloody civil war and sectarian killings has had the Lebanese on the edge. In such circumstances, most Lebanese end up voting on sectarian lines.

The Lebanese civil society has been working tirelessly to change the nature of politics in Lebanon. One such group of the citizens is called “Massiret Watan” (Journey for a nation).

A bunch of 12 professionals started a 52-day and 600-kilometre march along Lebanon’s four borders. Inquiring about the issues faced by the people in different parts, the group also distributed hundreds of copies of the Lebanese constitution. They are hoping to cause awareness about the need of a pluralist Lebanon so the citizens vote for deserving candidates and not the puppets of regional powers.

One of the organisers of “Massiret Watan”, Maya Souhaid is a corporate lawyer. Lately she has been busy preparing for an argument in peoples courts. Maya needs to make a case for opting for candidates on the basis of their ideas and abilities and not sectarian affiliations at the Tripoli chambers of commerce.

“There is a garbage crisis in Lebanon. We don’t get electricity and rely on generators. The rivers are badly polluted. These are our issues,” Maya says of the problems crippling Lebanon. Disappointed with the current state of affairs, she adds, “Still the voting is done on the basis of whether you are a Shia or Sunni.”

It is a tall order for a small group of people, yet they are determined to lobby for a pluralist and democratic future for Lebanon.

Maya feels there is hope and brings up the curious example of municipal elections in Beirut in 2016 when volunteers seeking change formed a political campaign called ‘Beirut Madinati” and fought the municipal elections in the capital. The system failed to include the voice of 40% votes cast in their favour but since the law has changed and allows for proportional representation, which says Maya, “enables us to have candidates who will work on the real issues.” “It may not be 100% but even 40% would be a start,” she adds.

Lebanon has turned into a back yard of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s quest for dominance in the region. The Lebanese civil society is working towards securing Lebanon’s future as an independent and pluralist state but is unable to make much headway. It feels crippled by the sect and religion based politics which is funded by Tehran and Riyadh fighting their battle in Lebanon.

For now, a full-fledged war has been averted by Hariri’s return but in statecraft, the Saudis lost out to Iran and its proxy. Hizbollah upped its game by advising calm after what was clearly a Saudi provocation and came of age displaying rare wisdom.

Hizbollah has won, but if they don’t make concessions for enemy Saudis, war can’t be resisted for too long.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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