Hariri and Lebanon’s new political realignment
Beirut - The return to Beirut of Saad Hariri raises the possibility of the former prime minister taking a major role in government at a time when Lebanon remains embroiled in crisis.
Hariri, a leading Sunni politician, returned after he surprisingly endorsed Christian politician Suleiman Frangieh for president, a post that has been vacant for more than a year and which, according to Lebanon’s constitution, must be occupied by a Maronite Christian.
Frangieh is one of the hawks of the March 8 bloc traditionally opposed to Hariri’s March 14 alliance. Frangieh, who heads the mainly Christian Marada Movement, was an adversary of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, during the Syrian intervention in Lebanon from 1976 to 2005.
Saad Hariri’s decision to endorse Frangieh sheds light on the political realignment taking place in Lebanon and confirms his position as a major player in Lebanese politics despite a five-year absence abroad.
Explaining his decision to endorse Frangieh, a long-term ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hariri said it was for the good of Lebanon. Hariri said he visited Damascus and met Assad to defend Frangieh’s refusal to attend repeated parliamentary debates to elect a new president while the Shia group Hezbollah boycotts the sessions.
Lebanon’s parliament has met 37 times to replace former president Michel Suleiman, who left office on May 25, 2014, but has been unable to reach a quorum with Hezbollah and its allies boycotting the debates.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri shares Hariri’s optimism that the presidential crisis may soon be over, hinting that the March 8 alliance — including Hezbollah — could be prepared to endorse “ally” Frangieh for the presidency. Until now, the March 8 alliance has been committed to a Michel Aoun presidency, whatever the cost.
Hariri is well aware that the key to resolving the presidential crisis lies with Tehran and that Iran will not allow the election of a new president as long as the international community fails to recognise its regional influence.
Even before he returned to Beirut, Hariri had known he must wait for all Lebanese, including Hezbollah, to produce a president “made in Lebanon” rather than one appointed from abroad.
What has been revealed is a crisis of political alignment between the country’s political camps, whether regarding resentment towards the nomination of candidates from the March 8 alliance or the open indifference the latter has exhibited towards the March 14 bloc and attempts to reach a parliamentary quorum.
Even other intra-Lebanese alliances are not rock solid. Despite this, Hariri and others are trying, as much as possible, to promote the idea that it is acceptable to have differing opinions but not for this to reach a level of confrontation threatening a political crisis.
When Hezbollah was designated a terrorist group by a number of countries, Hariri was open to dialogue with the party. When Arab Interior ministers confirmed Hezbollah’s terrorist status in March, Lebanon’s Nouhad Machnouk — a member of Hariri’s Future Movement and March 14 alliance — expressed caution. This was at odds with the regional situation and the alliance between Riyadh and the Future Movement, as well as Hezbollah’s dependency on Iran.
At the same time, Hariri was careful to take into account the changing mood among the Gulf Arab states and the international community towards Hezbollah, as well as what is happening in neighbouring Syria, where Hezbollah forces are still engaged.
Hariri, understanding Russia’s position, is knocking on Moscow’s door by praising its “great role” in the region and the doors of the Kremlin are open to him, reflecting Moscow’s interest in Hariri and Lebanon.
Hariri has met Russian President Vladimir Putin and could meet Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud within a matter of weeks. Such a visit would only come after the Russians and Americans reach a settlement over Syria, which would facilitate the election of a president in Lebanon.
Hariri has endorsed Frangieh for president saying he is the Lebanese option. His meetings with world leaders, from French President François Hollande to Putin, aim to promote this idea of an authentic “made in Lebanon” president. He has said he is prepared to meet Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to reach a political settlement leading to the election of a new president, but is this possible at a time when tensions are escalating between the backers of Lebanon’s two rival blocs, Saudi Arabia and Iran?