Machnouk picks up regional signals, prepares for the post-Hariri era

The announcement of the formation of the “Third Independence Movement” threatens the Future Movement and its Sunni constituency.

Tuesday 11/05/2021
A file picture of former Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad el-Machnouk speaking in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
A file picture of former Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad el-Machnouk speaking in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

BEIRUT- Lebanese political sources believe that Saudi Arabia’s changed view of Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri is behind former interior minister Nohad el-Machnouk’s call for Hariri to apologise for not being able to form a Lebanese government.

The sources revealed that Machnouk’s words are based on strong information that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has now taken an unfavourable position towards Hariri and that he made his view known to an Arab official he met about a month ago in Riyadh.

According to Lebanese political sources, Machnouk  believes that France and Russia are now withdrawing their support for Hariri’s formation of a government of “specialists”.

In this regard, the sources indicated that Russia does not want to anger Hezbollah, which is not about to break its alliance with the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil, as they provide the needed cover for Hezbollah’s continued possession of weapons outside state control.

They add that the same applies, to some extent, to France, which, despite its strong dissatisfaction with the Aoun-Bassil duo, cannot ignore the positions of Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors and does not want to cut communication channels with them.

The sources justified Machnouk’s call for Hariri to relinquish his cabinet formation mandate by the realities on the ground. They indicate that Lebanon is heading towards a complete collapse and that it is better for Hariri not to put himself in a position where he is held responsible for the disaster that has befallen Lebanon.

The sources concluded that the former interior minister, who still represents Beirut in the Lebanese parliament, feels that the conditions are no longer suitable for the formation of a new government headed by Hariri.

They added that the opinion of the former minister, who worked for a long time with Rafik Hariri, is that Saad Hariri now faces a dead end that makes apologising a serious option in light of the insistence of the president and his son-in-law on impossible conditions that prevent him from forming a government.

Machnouk said in press statements that “if Hariri does not apologise, we will suffer for a very long time from this matter, but if he apologises, the problem will be even greater, because his apology at this stage would constitute a great shock to a segment of Lebanese society, especially his father’s supporters.”

Machnouk considered that “the political Hariri trend is afflicted with major flaws and failures after the mistake of electing Michel Aoun as president of the republic,” differently from “the nationalist Hariri trend (…) for which Rafik Hariri fought.”

Lebanese observers believe that the former interior minister picked up regional signals, especially from Saudi Arabia, pointing to the end of the bet on Hariri as a figure capable of confronting the growing influence of Hezbollah and behind it, that of Iran.

Hariri has long sought to present himself as an alternative capable of playing this role. In strong statements he made in the past few years always he depicted himself as being in the opposite camp of the Shia party.

They believe that Saudi Arabia’s dissatisfaction with Hariri will determine his future position, whether on the Lebanese scene, especially within the Sunni camp, or at the regional level. They note that the regional countries that support Hariri do so within the limits of the Saudi position.

Besides the possible loss of endorsement from Saudi Arabia, although known for its steady support for the Hariri faction, Saad Hariri is also no longer France’s favourite even though Paris had in the past stood behind tasking him anew with forming the government. This change of heart is no longer a secret, especially after published reports regarding the cold atmosphere that characterised his meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Hariri complained that Le Drian went to visit President Michel Aoun, as well as Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, while he himself  had to go to the French embassy to meet the foreign minister.

It is clear that the parity established by Paris between the different Lebanese parties has replaced its favourable treatment of Hariri. This could not have happened if the French had not realised that Riyadh was not betting on Hariri anymore. This position was reflected in Le Drian’s statements before and after his last visit to Beirut. Machnouk has translated this change of mood in his new political position.

Machnouk showed in his statements that he was not satisfied with the experience of the previous governments led by Hariri and with the settlement that was concluded with the president of the republic nor with how Hariri’s presence at the head of the previous government turned into a cover serving the agendas of others at the expense of the interests of the Sunnis whom Hariri was supposed to defend.

Machnouk believes that Hariri went too far in his moves to appease Hezbollah and considered his personal interests by staying in power rather than the regional and international position towards the Shia party, which was one of the reasons for the shift in the Saudi position towards him.

Machnouk said, “The political management of the settlement during the first three years encouraged the ambitions of Aoun and Bassil and made them more eager to go beyond Taif, bypass the constitution and bring the country to a dead end, of course with major support form Hezbollah.”

He was keen to emphasise that his disagreement with Hariri is not  personal, but rather a political difference, which explains his talk about forming a political front that will compete with the Future Movement.

He announced that “a group of comrades and friends, some of them old supporters of Rafik Hariri, are working to create a new front with the name of the Third Independence Movement, in order to liberate Lebanese decisions from the yoke of Iranian political occupation.”

The establishment of this front, if it were to take place, would be at the expense of the Future Movement, which is facing difficult conditions that have led to its loss of influence within the Sunni constituency itself, as well as in its national support base. The Future Movement turned into a party serving Hariri’s person more than an influential party within the internal balances of Lebanon.

The movement has also lost its ability to co-opt  Sunni figures who worked in previous governments and were close to the party during the period of Rafik Hariri. Among these figures are former prime ministers who established their own club.

Those familiar with the controversy within the Future Movement’s circle of influence say that it was turned into a ruling party whose mission is to provide a political constituency for Saad Hariri, especially in the period following the conclusion of the settlement with the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil and leading to the election of Aoun as president of the republic.