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Saad Hariri’s retreat leaves a vacuum in Lebanon

Saad Hariri, the three-term premier of Lebanon, this week announced his withdrawal from politics and called on his Future Movement, the leading Sunni party, to stand aside from general elections due this spring.

Naturally, this gave cynics plenty to play with. Since last summer, Hariri — son of Rafiq Hariri, the assassinated leader who rebuilt the country after the 1975-90 civil war — has mostly been living comfortably in Abu Dhabi while his countrymen are enduring what the World Bank thinks may be among the worst economic meltdowns of any country since the mid-19th century.

Indeed, the bank’s Lebanon report this week is titled “The Great Denial”, and follows a report accusing sectarian dynasts and recycled warlords that have lived off Lebanon’s rents of creating a “deliberate depression”, to inflate themselves out of debt and plunge three-quarters of the population into poverty and force mass emigration.

Where does Hariri figure in all this? In an emotional farewell, he said he had succeeded in preventing a relapse into civil war, but failed in his aim to improve the lot of the mass of Lebanese. He had made painful compromises, and lost the fortune he inherited from his billionaire father. He ruefully acknowledged that he ended up being publicly considered just another part of the putrid political elites that had looted and ruined the country.

His retreat now, even if tactical, leaves a vacuum. This is not because he is a heavyweight; while always charming, he has been a weak and ineffective politician. It is because Lebanon since independence in 1943 has always needed a Sunni pillar to keep it aloft. That has never been more so than now, with Christians divided between Sunni and Shia, and Lebanon in thrall to Hizbollah, the Iran-backed, Syria-aligned Shia paramilitary power that operates as a state-above-the-state. Saad Hariri’s withdrawal also highlights a deadly symptom of the present crisis across the Middle East: the near absence of mainstream and moderate Sunni Arab leaders, as Iran uses militias with missiles to power its Shia Arab allies across the Levant and the Gulf.

Rafiq Hariri was such a mainstream leader and an obstacle to Iran’s and Syria’s designs on Lebanon — one reason he was vaporised in a giant fireball on Valentine’s Day in 2005. Saad was thrust unprepared into his role. He had the support of Saudi Arabia and France, as well as the US and the UK, and funds ostensibly for Lebanon’s reconstruction kept flowing.

But Hariri senior had completely failed to reconstruct postwar Lebanon politically. The Saudi-negotiated Taif accord of 1989 made the executive prime minister — always a Sunni — first among equals of the triumvirate of a Christian president and Shia speaker of parliament. Using this power and international backing was risky, as he would tragically find out. But it was easier anyway to play the sectarian patronage game. All his successors, including his son Saad, have sunk into that hole, while Lebanon became an institutional wasteland.

Saad Hariri, to be fair, faced some wrenching choices. Under Saudi pressure, he went to Damascus to reconcile with Bashar al-Assad, whose regime was one of the architects of his father’s murder. The Future Movement and its Druze allies lost a showdown with Hizbollah, the Iran-backed movement that over-ran Sunni West Beirut in May 2008. Hizbollah and its allies would later win a blocking minority on cabinet decisions. Hariri absented himself in Paris for security reasons. But upon returning he helped elevate General Michel Aoun and his Hizbollah-allied Christian party to the presidency in 2016, an arrangement that translated into a parliamentary majority with Hizbollah at its core from 2018.

Saudi Arabia, angry that it was funding an Iranian takeover of Lebanon to add to the Islamic Republic’s dominant position in Iraq and Syria and influence in Yemen and Bahrain, cancelled a $4bn military aid package. Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler, followed this by in effect holding Hariri hostage in Riyadh and forcing him to resign. This enabled his enemies at home to later “restore” him as a much-diminished premier.

As Lebanon entered its spiral into compounded debt, fiscal, banking, currency and economic crises, Hariri in October 2019 held talks in Abu Dhabi about leasing control of Beirut’s port and airport to the United Arab Emirates. These came to nothing and his government was toppled weeks later by a civic uprising against the entire political class (Beirut’s port, of course, was blown to bits along with swaths of Beirut in a giant chemical blast in August 2020).

Hariri is back in Abu Dhabi. He is standing aside from elections that may not happen, but which are nevertheless virtually the sole preoccupation of Lebanon’s politicians. Hizbollah should refrain from complacency. Its main allies and props, President Aoun and Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of parliament and powerbroker, are in their mid-80s and the twilight of their careers. Lebanon cannot, in any case, be governed without the Sunni. Yet, as the World Bank points out in “The Great Denial”, the game goes on regardless of Lebanon’s effective state failure.

 david.gardner@ft.com

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