The protests that took place across the country in recent days have given the political class few options and have left Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement imploring Prime Minister Saad Hariri to refrain from resigning.
This plea was evident during FPM leader Gebran Bassil’s speech on Friday and again Saturday when Hezbollah’s secretary-general announced his party’s rejection of Hariri resigning.
In his address to the nation following the nationwide protests, Hariri on Friday gave a 72-hour deadline for political parties in his government to agree to his terms of an economic plan for the forthcoming period.
It was widely anticipated that Hariri was going to resign, and this led Bassil to speak beforehand. Bassil was noticeably scared of Hariri’s decision as was apparent in his tone. Asked if this was an accurate interpretation, a source close to Bassil said, “Of course he is scared. This is a big problem.” The source was referring to the protests that broke out.
Hariri has two options now: resign or reach a new understanding with the political parties in the government.
The first option would immediately throw the country into an economic free fall and most likely end Hariri’s political career in the country. It is also probable that there would be a complete government paralysis due to the lack of suitable replacements for Hariri. The premiership is reserved for a Sunni and it’s unclear not just who would be accepted by the Lebanese, but who would be willing to clean up the mess the country is in.
This political vacuum could take months at best and years at worst.
As for the second option, a new understanding between political parties would not be the first time Hariri agrees to one. Following his 2017 detention in Saudi Arabia, Hariri came back to Beirut and all parties agreed to immediate economic reforms, which then led to Hariri garnering more than $11 billion in foreign pledges.
This agreement with Bassil and also Hezbollah then hit another roadblock when Hariri was tasked with forming a government in the summer of 2018. Bassil and Hezbollah were demanding to name one of the six Sunni ministers in the government.
Hariri agreed and the new government was supposed to get to work. An electricity plan – seen as a major breakthrough – was agreed to but has yet to be implemented. A number of other reforms were agreed to but also have not been implemented.
Most recently, minister were discussing the 2020 budget, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A package of increased taxes on citizens were in the works and media reports surfaced about the now-infamous $0.20 WhatsApp tax. This is what the sparked the recent protests, but was not the only thing.
Political sources close to the FPM and Hezbollah now fear an open-ended crisis if Hariri resigns. “Once he’s out of the way, the targeting of the presidency [Bassil] and his alliance with Hezbollah will be much easier,” one source says.
Washington and its allies in the region, mainly Saudi Arabia, fervently oppose any alliances with Hezbollah as part of their maximum-pressure campaign on Iran.
A separate political source believes that the longer the protests go on, the more foreign interference will take place. “They will release statements about protecting the safety of protesters and respecting their demands,” the source said.
Over the summer, clashes in Qabr Shmoun between rival Druze parties led to a paralysis in Cabinet for over a month. Days before the deadlock was broken, a statement was released by the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Although it was not direct interference, it was seen as facilitating an agreement between all sides to break the impasse.
All eyes are on Hariri now and the decision that he makes. It is apparent that he would prefer not to resign despite pressure from his traditional allies, the Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party, to do so.
During their speeches, Bassil and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah tried to warn about the economic consequences of a resignation. Hariri’s allies are calling for a new government and even new president.
If Hariri decides against resigning, any new agreement with the political parties stands a minimal chance of appeasing the hundreds of thousands of protestors.
And the LF and PSP, who both appear likely to withdraw their ministers from the current government, are not expected to withdraw their supporters from the streets. “They may move out of the way in the government, but they won’t move their supporters out of the streets. And calling on the security forces to push them out will only cause more chaos," the first political source said.
“There needs to be some sort of positive shock. But I’m not sure what he [Hariri] will be able to do within these 72 hours.”
The source added: “Either one of the decisions will eventually reach a dead-end. If he resigns, the Lebanese pound will immediately depreciate and there will be no government for a long time. If he doesn’t resign, what is he going to do to answer the demands of the people?”
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