In the wake of the failure to form a government led by Saad al Hariri, attention has now turned to the question of who will replace him amid increasingly desperate social and economic circumstances.
In the nine months since Saad al Hariri made a return to the Lebanese political scene as Prime Minister-designate following the resignation of Hassan Diab in the wake of the devastating explosion at the Beirut port, Lebanon’s socio-economic and political situation has entered a downward spiral at a seemingly exponential rate of acceleration.
With the Lebanese Lira now worth 21,150 to the US dollar, and over 50 percent of the population living under the poverty line, the prospects of securing even some form of short-term relief are increasingly dismal.
From Diab’s resignation on August 8, 2020 to Hariri’s announcement that parliamentary consultations had hit their final roadblock after nine months of fruitless and ultimately meaningless negotiations, the Lebanese have watched what amounts to a year of wasted time amidst what the World Bank has referred to as one of the worst economic crises the world has seen in the last 150 years.
In all of this, what is clear is that the country is in for a long and difficult interregnum in the lead up to the next elections and that, despite assertions otherwise, Hariri’s spectre is not going away any time soon.
Why did Hariri resign now?
Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil’s – the president’s son-in-law and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement – refusal to bend to Hariri’s conditions have arguably crossed a red line in Lebanese politics. By refusing to accept the conditions of the country’s most powerful Sunni political figure, the likelihood that they will be able to conjure a functional cabinet under a Sunni figure of their choosing is effectively zero.
A major element in the failure to form a government is that Aoun repeatedly rejected the names brought forward by Hariri. The Lebanese constitution is vague on the extent that the president can influence the naming of cabinet ministers, something that has been keenly exploited by both sides in the dispute.
Aoun insists that he has the prerogative to have an equal say in the shape of any potential government. His camp interprets the constitution as giving the president authority far beyond the mere passive approval of the choices of the PM-designate.
Hariri’s camp, and the major players in the Sunni political community for that matter, believe that the PM-designate has the prerogative to form the government according to his wishes and while they tacitly acknowledge that the president has the right to ask for changes here and there, the constitution does not grant him the authority to de-facto form the government by repeatedly rejecting the proposed lineup.
At this stage, it remains unclear who might succeed Hariri as PM-designate, although several names have been floated including former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and former cabinet minister Faisal Karami.
It is likely, however, that Hariri believes that Aoun and Bassil deliberately sought to undermine his efforts given their ongoing political, and at times very personal rivalry.
Hariri’s Future Movement, the main Sunni political party in Lebanon’s sectarian political landscape, has said that they will not name any new candidate, which only adds to the country’s political uncertainty.
Moreover, it remains unlikely that any legitimate figure from the Sunni community, from which Lebanon’s Prime Minister must be selected, will present conditions different enough to overcome the current impasse.
Ultimately, the only candidates Aoun and Bassil will have to offer will be avatars of Hassan Diab – the country’s current caretaker PM – and will lack legitimacy with the Sunni political establishment.
As a demonstration of the influence Hariri will continue to wield in Lebanese politics, his refusal to fully back whoever is named after him will make it all but impossible to find a candidate who has a realistic chance of forming a government that can, at a minimum, start tackling the country’s most pressing short-term challenges.
Moreover, it remains a distinct possibility that Hariri may seek to deliberately obstruct the government formation process moving forward, seeking leverage for elections scheduled for next spring.
In the unlikely event that Hariri does sincerely endorse parliament’s choice to succeed him, the likelihood that they will diverge significantly enough from Hariri’s line to break through the Aoun-Bassil obstruction is effectively zero, otherwise Hariri would not endorse them in the first place.
As if the situation in Lebanon could get any worse, the likely failure to quickly name a realistic and legitimate replacement for Hariri will inevitably entail a further destabilisation of the country and lay the groundwork for the political powers that be to leverage sectarian tensions in an effort to secure the support of their respective political bases in what has the potential to be a dangerous escalation.
Of course, those who will suffer the most are the Lebanese people. No government, or no government with a realistic chance of advancing key issues, means no progress on economic reforms which in turn means no help from the international community.
The ‘Gordian Knot’ of Lebanon’s local-regional dynamics
In Lebanon, the domestic situation is intricately woven with regional dynamics. Although not publicly involved in the Hariri-Aoun/Bassil conflict, there is a broad understanding that Hariri was relying on Hezbollah to use its leverage vis-a-vis Aoun and Bassil to help smooth the process of cabinet formation.
However, several domestic and regional factors made this all but impossible, not least of which was the party’s unwillingness to risk conflict with the president or his son-in-law over something the latter two have clearly deemed to be politically vital.
The bottom line here is that Hezbollah was and remains unwilling to challenge a president that continues to provide an important cover for Hezbollah’s weapons and ultimately its regional activities, particularly in an environment in which the party has the most to lose of any of Lebanon’s major political players.
With Hezbollah’s, and therefore Iran’s ascendency in the country, Lebanon’s traditional financial and political backers in the Gulf states are wary of providing support to a state in which Iran’s allies clearly hold the upper hand.
On July 18, the former Chief Editor of the Saudi-owed Asharq Al Awsat penned an opinion piece calling for Aoun to follow in Hariri’s footsteps and resign. As part of his critique, he wrote that:
“The Arab and Gulf position is rational and logical. Why would they continue to support a state that is not a state […] and is just a land hijacked by the weapons of the Iranian Hezbollah? […] Why does Iran not support Lebanon and only supports Hezbollah?”
Like Aoun, Hariri has also provided international cover for Hezbollah, which has caused tensions with Riyadh in particular. However, his close connections to the Sunni Arab world in general and his good relations with France and the United States means that Hezbollah is keen to keep him politically off-balance.
Moreover, with talk of Aoun’s replacement heating up, Hezbollah may wish to see Bassil become president over the next-likeliest figure, Suleyman Franjieh. Franjieh is close to Syria’s Bashar al Assad and a Franjieh presidency would likely signal a return to a more significant role in Lebanon, largely at the expense of Iran. As Carnegie Middle East’s Michael Young recently wrote in an op-ed for the National:
“For Hezbollah, anything that diminishes Iran’s dominant hold on Lebanon is unacceptable. So the party likely regards Syria as a potential rival, one with the advantage of having its own sympathisers on the ground. That may explain why Hezbollah was so reluctant to pressure Mr. Aoun and Mr. Bassil on a new cabinet.”
In any event, as numerous Lebanese analysts, journalists, academics, activists and civil society members have repeatedly pointed out, even before the current crisis hit in 2019, nothing substantial will change in the country so long as the current system is in place. The system itself is the ultimate cause of the crisis and therefore cannot be fixed by it.
In the short term, the country desperately needs a government that can, at a minimum, unlock the promised international assistance that would provide some short-term support. In the longer term, a new political blood needs to be injected into the current system in order to begin its transformation.
This is about a systematic approach to change, not revolution, as demonstrated by the recent electoral victory of Aaref Yassine as President of the Order of Engineers and Architects, a clear and decisive victory for a coalition of opposition groups over Lebanon’s ruling parties.
Lebanon’s only real long-term hope of emerging from its current dilemma lies precisely in the ability of new political blood to effectively mobilise. In the meantime, Hariri, Aoun, Bassil, Hezbollah and the others will continue to prioritise their own interests over those of their people.
Michael Arnold writes on the history of Islamic thought and the politics and history of the modern Middle East. He is a PhD candidate in Arab and Middle Eastern History at the American University of Beirut. Based in Istanbul, he currently works as a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre.
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