Speculation in Lebanon about Hariri retiring from politics

Sunday 18/09/2016
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of Lebanon’s parliamentary majority, takes a selfie with his supporters after he cast his vote during the Municipal Elections, outside a ballot station, in Beirut, last May.

Beirut - There has been speculation recently about Future Movement leader and former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri de­ciding to retire from politics. Those who are putting forward that opin­ion cite financial troubles faced by Hariri, who owns construction firm Saudi Oger, which is undergoing major debt restructuring.
In addition to this, a number of Sunni figures may be better placed to deal with the political situation and enjoy a more harmonious rela­tionship with Saudi Arabia, which has taken a more confrontational position towards Lebanon.
The financial crisis surrounding Saudi Oger, which is expected to result in thousands of Lebanese workers losing their jobs, will hurt Hariri’s popularity at home. Hariri’s political position, one that is based on moderation and compromise, is no longer finding major support among Lebanon’s Sunnis, given the various crises the country is facing, not to mention the wider regional situation. Hariri’s traditional posi­tions seem completely unrealistic to many Lebanese.
After his tenure as prime minis­ter, Hariri went into self-imposed exile in Paris, citing domestic se­curity threats. There were many changes in Lebanon while he was absent, something that Hariri does not seem to have realised.
Hariri’s return did not revitalise the Future Movement or the March 14 alliance that it leads. Hariri’s opponents, and particularly Hez­bollah, have benefited from the Future Movement’s failures, while Lebanon’s Sunnis have been dis­enchanted by Hariri’s inability to deal with the various crises faced by Lebanon, not least Hezbollah embroiling the country in the Syr­ian conflict.
There is rising sectarian extrem­ism in Lebanon and the Middle East as a whole. This has hurt Hari­ri’s position in Lebanese politics in the short term, although that may be reversible in the long term.
One analysis says the political in­transigence in Lebanon is because each side is seeking to strengthen future negotiating positions. Once those negotiations take place, po­litical life in Lebanon would return to a semblance of normality.
If that is the case, then Hariri and his policy of moderation and compromise will be indispensa­ble, even if there seems to be a lack of popular appetite for it now. Of course, if Hariri does retire from politics, he will not be around to advocate moderation and compro­mise.
Future Movement Member of Parliament Kazem al-Khair said Hariri retiring from public life was “not on the table”, adding that “Hariri is a force on the ground and will never accept giving up his pres­ence and what this represents”.
He denied that the crisis sur­rounding Saudi Oger could force Hariri to step back from politics. “The whole world is going through a financial crisis and this is some­thing that all [Lebanese] parties are facing, particularly Hezbollah, which is facing financial problems due to its involvement in the Syrian conflict and the daily death toll and the financial repercussions of this,” he said.
Lebanese political analyst Naufal Daou said that if Hariri did retire, that would strengthen extremism in Lebanon. “Without Hariri, Leba­non’s Sunnis will fall prey to more extremist views,” he said.
Daou said Hariri was indispen­sable for Lebanese politics, even for his political rivals. “In spite of all the problems between them, even Hezbollah would prefer Hariri to remain,” Daou said. “Yes, they want him weakened but they also want him because he is the only one who can ease the tensions [in Lebanese politics].”
Future Movement MP Ahmed Fatfat said talk about Hariri retiring was part of a wider political cam­paign against him. “The forthcom­ing Future Movement party confer­ence [scheduled for October] and the regional visits being carried out by Hariri and Future Movement ministers confirm that there is no truth to rumours that he is prepar­ing to retire,” he said.
Fatfat reiterated Daou’s warnings that a Lebanon without Hariri is a Lebanon that is easy prey for ex­tremism, saying: “This would open the door for rising extremism and political exclusion. Saad Hariri is a national necessity because he leads the only party that can cross the sectarian divides in Lebanon.”