Prime min­is­ter cuts hap­less fig­ure amid up­heaval

The National - News - - NEWS - KHALED YA­COUB OWEIS Anal­y­sis

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

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