Prime minister cuts hapless figure amid upheaval
Prime Minister Saad Hariri seems an inconsequential figure amid the upheaval sweeping Lebanon, except for his usefulness to his rivals as the linchpin of a hugely unpopular system that has fallen, to a large extent, under the influence of Hezbollah.
The 49-year-old son of the late statesman Rafic Hariri has been powerless to prevent attacks on demonstrators, who have taken to the streets since Thursday, initially in response to a tax on WhatsApp calls and other levies aimed at raising cash for a depleted treasury.
In the run-up to the protests, Mr Hariri failed to reverse the trajectory of an economy he has staked his political career on saving. But he was still thought of in financial markets as Lebanon’s best, albeit dwindling, chance to garner support, internally and abroad, for a plan to control public debt, now at one-and-ahalf times the country’s gross domestic product, and avert financial collapse.
Mr Hariri also represents a political status quo that suits Hezbollah. He remained silent as authorities clamped down on public critics of the Shiite group unhappy with its role as an Iranian proxy.
But in a rare instance of cross-sectarianism since Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Shiites joined the mass demonstrations, accusing Hezbollah of being part of the political class they want to get rid of.
A significant proportion of Hezbollah’s constituency, from its stronghold in southern Beirut to the coastal city of Tyre, appeared to be among those turning against the sectarian patronage system from which they supposedly benefit.
Shiite protesters attacked the offices of Hezbollah’s MPs and chanted slogans against its main Shiite ally, Nabih Berri, head of the Amal movement and the speaker of Parliament since the early 1990s.
In response, members of Amal beat Shiite demonstrators in Tyre.
Under Lebanon’s confessional system, where 18 official sects share power, government jobs and perks, the parliamentary speaker is Shiite, the prime minister Sunni and the president Christian.
Although the position of the prime minister was enhanced under a new constitution at the end of the civil war, power in Lebanon has steadily shifted to Hezbollah since 2006.
The group expanded its influence in January this year after Mr Hariri’s bloc lost seats in Parliament, taking three rather than the usual two Cabinet seats in the unity government.
The deal did not avert Lebanon’s deepest economic crisis since the civil war. Mr Hariri’s efforts to secure an external lifeline to stave off pressure on the Lebanese pound have stagnated. Reforms needed to tap into the $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) in foreign aid have not materialised, while his relationship with Hezbollah has kept traditional Gulf allies away.
The dollar peg that Mr Hariri has committed to preserving is close to breaking and access to dollars has been restricted as Lebanese seek to dump the national currency.
Mr Hariri hinted on Friday that he might resign within 72 hours if parties did not back his economic plan. But no Cabinet has made any significant reforms since Lebanon’s public debt started ballooning in the mid-1990s, partly due to the inherent fragmentation of the political system. The country went 10 years without passing a national budget until 2017, leading to massive, unaccounted spending.
On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he was against Mr Hariri resigning, and warned demonstrators that Hezbollah would not allow them to topple President Michel Aoun, a formal ally of Hezbollah and the founder of a party once close to Mr Hariri.
Mr Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, is foreign minister and leader of the president’s Free Patriotic Movement. He has been groomed to succeed Mr Aoun, who became president after another de facto deal between Mr Hariri and Hezbollah in 2016. However, the anger on the streets, of which Mr Bassil is often a target, could put that plan in jeopardy.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah would “go on to the streets, changing all the equations” to prevent Mr Aoun from being toppled. During a political standoff with Mr Hariri in 2008, Hezbollah gunmen took over large areas in Beirut.
Today the Shiite community appears split. Many have taken to the streets to voice anger, helping to give the protest movement a national appeal, but other hardcore loyalists have either remained on the sidelines or stepped in to beat the protesters.
Khaled Kassar, head of Lebanon’s Corporate Social Responsibility forum, said there is no clear economic fix that Mr Hariri can use to hang on to his position.
Mr Kassar said Lebanon’s prospects of escaping financial disaster would be better served by a new government comprised of technocrats.
“This is the moment of reckoning for Saad. By resigning, the protest movement will have one less obstacle and go for Baabda,” he told The
National, referring to the presidential palace.
The announcement by the Christian-majority Lebanese Forces party that it was quitting the government should make it easier for Mr Hariri to resign, but the decision is an almost impossible one: stay on as a reviled figure who ignored the demands of a large segment of the population or step down and potentially unleash political and financial chaos.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri