Hariri’s presidential move: Surrender or political realism?
BEIRUT - In a dramatic shift of events, Sunni leader Saad Hariri has taken a major political risk by endorsing Christian leader Michel Aoun, a strong ally of his long-time Shia rivals, Hezbollah and Iran, as candidate for president of Lebanon.
Hariri’s move brings Lebanon closer to ending more than two-and-a-half years of a presidential vacuum and Aoun near to achieving his long dream of becoming president. It falls short, though, of appeasing the anger and fears of many of Hariri’s supporters and allies who saw the change as a capitulation to Hezbollah and Iran.
Hariri justified his decision by saying this was “the last option” left to save Lebanon from plunging into civil strife with wars raging next door in Syria as well as in Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the collapse of the state institutions and economic deterioration.
While he admitted taking “a great political risk” and making “yet another sacrifice”, Hariri revealed the terms of his agreement with Aoun: Preserving the Lebanese state and its Arab identity, reconfirming the 1989 Taif reconciliation accords, reactivating the state institutions and economy and remaining neutral concerning the Syria crisis — something hard to understand with Hezbollah heavily engaged in the war there, fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces for more than four years.
The comment on Twitter by Telecom Minister Boutros Harb, a prominent Christian politician and a Hariri ally, summarised the disappointment and critical mood against Hariri. “Congratulations to the Lebanese people, the political blackmail has won,” Harb posted.
Hezbollah had stood firm on its demand that Aoun be the next president, refusing Hariri’s earlier compromise to elect Suleiman Frangieh, another ally of Hezbollah and a personal friend of Assad. Not even the political paralysis and economic deterioration that almost pushed the country to collapse could alter Hezbollah’s position.
Hariri’s warning that the “situation today is much more dangerous and difficult than it might appear” did not convince many on why he threw in all his cards, wasting years of resisting Hezbollah and Iranian dominance over Lebanon.
True, Hariri has been politically weakened in recent years and is shaken by financial problems but he remains an important player, as a Sunni force in the country’s delicate confessional balance. Without him, Aoun’s election cannot materialise.
Another reason for Hariri’s move is that he has been almost abandoned by Saudi Arabia, his principal supporter, which appears to have lost patience and interest in Lebanon, focusing instead on internal and external problems.
It is unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which Hariri visited several times, gave Hariri its blessing to back Aoun or if he decided to act on his own and accept the consequences.
A crack in Hariri’s Future Movement is widening. Prominent members of the bloc in parliament and other independent allies say they will not vote for Aoun, whose candidacy was also — strangely — opposed by Hezbollah’s close Shia ally, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
It is yet to be seen whether all obstacles can be removed to secure Aoun’s election at the next parliament session on October 31st or afterward and whether Hariri has enough guarantees to maintain his political position in the country and form a cabinet once he is again made prime minister.
The memory of how Hariri was forced out of that post in January 2011 when ten ministers allied with Hezbollah resigned as Hariri was about to meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington is still vivid.
“Hariri, in the political sense of this word, has surrendered,” said Sam Menassa, director of the Lebanese Centre for Documentation and Research. “Would saving Lebanon be by handing it to Hezbollah with a Sunni blessing?”
Menassa argued that having Aoun as president means “the success of the Iranian project, which started with the assassination of Rafik Hariri (Saad’s father in 2005) and the consolidation of Tehran’s hegemony starting from Iraq to Lebanon through its non-state actors, the Shia militias.”
Kassem Kassir, a political analyst well-informed about Hezbollah, called for not considering Hariri’s move as a “defeat” or “surrender” but “rather as an attempt to rearrange the country’s internal conditions and sharing power to avoid a total vacuum in the country”.
“Hezbollah is strong as a regional power but cannot rule the country alone. It needs a Sunni partner,” Kassir said, arguing that Hezbollah’s internal strength is illogically exaggerated for it barely constitutes 30-40% of the Shias in Lebanon. Also, its military power is of no use inside the country.
Aoun, he said, is the “guarantee” for Hezbollah when “it returns from the Syria war, whether defeated or victorious”.
An important question, however, remains: Was the new settlement in Lebanon dictated by developments in the region, including a more aggressive role by Russia, Turkey’s direct involvement in Syria and Iraq, a still-shy US role and Saudi Arabia’s decreasing influence?
“Lebanon has always been the mirror that reflects the balance of power in the region,” said Michel Nawfal, an expert in Iranian and Turkish affairs. “We are still on moving sands and the big blocs in the region are changing.”