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'House of Cards': Could former prime minister Saad Hariri pull Lebanon back from the brink?

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Political graffiti is visible in front of the scene of the August 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon.
Political graffiti is visible in front of the scene of the August 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon.   -   Copyright  Hussein Malla/Associated Press
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Soon after Lebanon’s 50-year-old former prime minister, Saad Hariri left Lebanon’s presidential palace, he headed straight for his palatial home in the downtown area of Beirut known as Centre House, assured he would be given the chance to form a new government.

But in contemplating the political road ahead, the newly-appointed prime minister-designate had nothing to cheer about.

A year ago, when fierce anti-government protests ground Lebanon to a halt, violence tore through the sector of the city where he lives. Luxury brand names like Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Hermes were forced to shutter their plate glass windows behind thick steel screens, along with high-end jewellery stores and the reviled banks which blocked depositors’ money except for the billions of dollars belonging to a politically-connected inner circle, allegedly spirited away through illegal controls.

Today, almost a week to the day since he bowed to the demands of protestors and resigned his government, Hariri’s embattled political career has turned full-circle in an extraordinary comeback. And in doing so, it flies in the face of everything the demonstrators have consistently called out for, foremost of which was the removal of not only Hariri but the entire ruling elite, putting an end to what many in the country have regarded as a mendacious, corrupted and inefficient political system.

Nothing has epitomised Lebanon’s downfall more than the explosion which wiped out Beirut port and wrecked swathes of the capital in August, leaving it resembling the aftermath of a nuclear blast.

Reversal of political fortunes

To accept such a poisoned chalice appears to be all the more bizarre because several weeks ago, according to close associates, Saad Hariri spent a night writing a “farewell to politics” speech. He told them he’d done his best as a two-time prime minister, admitted he had made mistakes because, unlike dictators, he was not infallible. He also lamented the fact that Lebanon was so bitterly divided that rival communities were void of empathy for each other, even during times of the gravest of hardships. He locked the draft speech away and decided to watch and wait.

Hariri felt he couldn’t abandon his supporters, nor abdicate the heavy responsibility from inheriting the political legacy of his father, Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in 2005 and was himself a five-time prime minister. He was also feeling frustrated that he was being held to account for the national disaster as much as - or even more so - than Hezbollah and its allies, including the President of the Republic, and former warlords with blood on their hands from the country’s civil war years.

During the 1980s, when Beirut was known as the terror capital of the world, scores of Western hostages disappeared during the conflict, brutally held captive by Islamic radicals. Nearly three decades later, more than six million citizens of Lebanon have now become hostages themselves – held prisoner by a bitterly divided political system.

Nothing has epitomised Lebanon’s downfall more than the explosion which wiped out Beirut port and wrecked swathes of the capital in August, leaving it resembling the aftermath of a nuclear blast. The Hezbollah-backed government in power resigned soon afterward, the second government to fall in a year of dismal failures and catastrophes; from devastating wildfires, rising coronavirus infections, an economy in freefall, a crumbling banking system, and an increasingly worthless local currency.

More than half the country has fallen below the poverty line as peoples’ lives have been turned upside down. Some tried to escape the hardships by fleeing to Cyprus in small boats 150 miles away, a treacherous journey.

A proxy war battleground

In the 15 years since he stood in front of the smouldering crater where his father was killed when a suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with a ton of high explosives, Saad Hariri has carried on against all odds. US-educated, he is pro-Western and, like his father, is a moderate Sunni Muslim. His first term in office as head of a national unity government ended in 2011 when Hezbollah and its allies caused its collapse in a dispute over naming suspects in his father's murder.

Hariri returned to power for a second term in 2016 after agreeing to a controversial deal which handed the keys of the coveted presidential palace to a former army general, Michael Aoun, a Maronite Christian and unwavering political ally of Hezbollah. In doing so, he reportedly made a commitment to the Hariri family’s long-time benefactors, Saudi Arabia, that he would push back on Iran’s influence in Lebanon through proxy Hezbollah in favour of Saudi interests.

The pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and a year after he resumed office, Hariri was taken off his private jet in the Saudi capital, Riyadh in late 2017 after being summoned to a meeting with a furious Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) - the powerful royal whose name was linked to the gruesome murder of a prominent critic, Jamal Kashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, in Turkey in 2018. Hariri was put under close arrest and made to resign the premiership, his political career seemingly at an end.

Hezbollah may have proved itself resourceful fighting in Syria and Yemen but it’s not immune to blame for the hopeless mess Lebanon now finds itself in.

No longer a Saudi beneficiary, Hariri’s business empire in the country had long since been throttled by the Saudi government’s non-payment of billions of dollars in contracts to his company, Saudi Oger, founded by his murdered father.

If MBS was Saad’s nemesis in all this, the attempt to trigger his downfall backfired spectacularly when President Aoun and Hezbollah refused to accept the resignation, creating a rare moment of national unity to save Hariri from the cold embrace of the Saudi crown prince. Since then, Hezbollah has increased its influence and capabilities to the satisfaction of Iran, but to the detriment of Riyadh and the United States.

Early last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Lebanese people to stand up to Hezbollah’s "criminality, terror, and threats," and claimed US sanctions on Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally were working. Six months later, amid a shortage of US dollars in Lebanon, the first street protests erupted, triggered by a clumsy government attempt to tax WhatsApp calls.

Hussein Malla/Associated Press
Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri speaks to journalists at the Presidential Palace, Lebanon, on Thursday October 22, 2020.Hussein Malla/Associated Press

"House of Cards"

Twelve days into the turmoil in late October, Hariri resigned the premiership once again. Since then, two attempts were made to form a capable, reform-committed, and non-political government with other personalities. They failed miserably.

Until now, the United States and Riyadh seem to have been betting that a rudderless and bankrupt Lebanon could both weaken support for Hezbollah, whose huge arsenal of rockets pose a serious threat to Israel and block a possible Iranian take-over of a country with access to the Mediterranean Sea.

While the US slapped more sanctions on Hezbollah and associates, the Saudis, according to informed sources, used their own well-oiled network of patronage with key political leaders in Lebanon to stymie the formation of a working government. Lebanon sank deeper into a hole.

French president Emmanuel Macron entered the arena with a very different approach. In trying to up pick up the existing political pieces in Lebanon’s own “House of Cards” high stakes drama, he hoped to re-assemble them into some form of working order to save the country from an abyss. That has meant dealing with Hezbollah for all its bellicose and uncompromising stands. And almost unbelievably, it also includes the return to power of Hariri, who looks favourably on the disarmament of Hezbollah but not at the expense of destroying the country.

Hezbollah may have proved itself resourceful fighting in Syria and Yemen but it’s not immune to blame for the hopeless mess Lebanon now finds itself in. Maximum US economic pressure on Iran and its powerful Lebanese protégé can only contribute further to the savage scale of collateral damage. But what if Hezbollah is the last one standing in a failed state? Or an Islamic Republic of Lebanon on Israel’s volatile northern border, where tensions have recently escalated, becomes a reality? Could there be a resurgence of Islamic State in northern Lebanon? Or a flight by sea towards Cyprus and the EU by helpless Syrian refugees and impoverished Lebanese next spring? The warning signs could not be clearer.

Elephant in the room

In the eyes of many in Lebanon, the house of Hariri, like the other big names in politics, has already been badly tarnished by decades of corruption and mismanagement. They’ve all had their chances to do better for the country, say many Lebanese, and they should stop trying to make comebacks or cling to power.

But the elephant is still in the room – Hezbollah. The militant group is a political and military enterprise on a corporate scale. By steadfastly committing to its huge arsenal of weapons and maintaining political power, the group intends to ensure longevity within the Lebanese state, and so an argument goes that if they can remain in power why not the other national leaders too?

Macron seems to have grasped that dynamic which may explain why he expects another Hariri-led government of non-political specialists to perform a vital, if short-term mission to enact vital reforms in line with the French initiative, to open a way for possible financial support, slow down the rot and prepare for new elections.

And as the United States braces itself for a possible change in the White House, the administration seems prepared to use a temporary carrot in Lebanon instead of a stick and has not stood in the way of Hariri’s rebound.

If he succeeds in forming a new government, it may serve to illustrate to the Saudis that they have lost a resilient ally in Saad Hariri. Even so, Lebanon remains at the mercy of itself, a hostage to fortune in which all bets are off.