On anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s death, son pursues same balancing act

On the eve of his assassination, Rafik Hariri was pursuing a policy similar to that his son is following towards Hezbollah today.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during a ceremony to mark the 13th anniversary of the assassination of his father, on February 14. (AP)
Lonely vigil. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri commemorates the 13th anniversary of the assassination of his father, on February 14. (AP)

On this year’s anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, his son, Saad Hariri, stood alone. Unlike previous years, his partners in the March 14 movement were absent. No class picture and no joining of raised hands to declare solidarity and unity of purpose. The scene resembled the new political landscape in Lebanon.

It appears that it has moved full circle, back to where it was on the eve of the assassination.

During his short political career, Rafik Hariri faced the unattainable task of striking a balance between the presence of Hezbollah, an armed resistance to the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon, and the effort to revive the Lebanese state after the 15-year civil war.

Yet, as long as the Israeli occupation continued, the situation remained tolerable since the occupation justified the presence of an armed resistance. Hariri’s delicate balancing act included more, however. He had to accommodate the huge Syrian influence, the implementation of the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the civil war, as well as execute a huge rebuilding effort.

The withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 changed things. Although the justification for the presence of an armed resistance ended, Hezbollah refused to disarm. This presented Hariri with a more complicated problem: How to rebuild a nation in the presence of an armed group that is financed, armed and receives its inspiration from a foreign country. Hariri’s efforts failed with a powerful explosion in Beirut on February 14, 2005.

Saad Hariri inherited the political mission and followed in his father’s footsteps in accommodating Hezbollah. He embarked on a policy that gave gradual concessions to the Iran-backed party. In 2016, he endorsed the party’s candidate for the presidency, ending a two-and-a-half-year deadlock.

Still, since becoming prime minister 14 months ago, Hariri’s concessions to Hezbollah accelerated the group’s progress to the extent that his critics claim that the party controls vital organs of the Lebanese state.

Hariri’s allies in the March 14 movement have accused him of appeasing Hezbollah. He responded that his policy has been one of realism because the militant group was not a domestic Lebanese problem but a regional one over which he had hardly any control. “I asked myself what would Rafik Hariri have done if he were alive and concluded that he would have done what I am doing now,” Saad Hariri said in a speech recently.

Then came the ordeal of his trip to Saudi Arabia last November, when he announced — in mysterious circumstances — that he was resigning as prime minister, only to withdraw the resignation after he returned to Lebanon.

Hariri blamed his ordeal on his allies whom he accused of stabbing him in the back because of his policy towards Hezbollah. His comrades in the March 14 movement responded that it was he who had betrayed them by his policy of appeasement.

Hariri may have his justifications for trying to accommodate Hezbollah. It is unimaginable for him to confront the party militarily without risking a civil war in Lebanon like the Syrian nightmare or even worse. In Hariri’s case, it is an instance of keeping friends close and potential enemies closer.

However, this is not without its problems. By assuming a role in government, Hezbollah controls — dictates — government policy on such important issues as defence and foreign affairs, while the government has zero influence over the party’s policy within and outside of Lebanon.

The militant group feels free to operate without any regard to the interests of the state or the Lebanese people. The consequence of such a policy is that it has damaged Lebanon’s relations with many Arab countries, most notably the Gulf states, while its effect on the Lebanese economy has been disastrous.

Hariri may have justifications for his Hezbollah policy even though it all but eroded the basic principles of the March 14 movement. However, it will be useful to recall that, on the eve of his assassination, Rafik Hariri was pursuing a similar policy to that his son is following towards Hezbollah today. One can only hope that the conclusion will be different.