Saad Hariri, a roller coaster ride at the helm of the government

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri addressed the media after announcing the new cabinet during a press conference at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut, on January 31, 2019. Lebanon announced a government line-up today, ending an eight-month wait that had heightened fears of a major economic collapse. / AFP / Anwar AMRO

At 48, Saad Hariri will be presiding his third cabinet in nine years, as Lebanon agreed, on Thursday evening, a new government, ending months of wrangling between rival political factions. Since he was propelled into the maelstrom of Lebanese politics almost 14 years ago, Saad Hariri has been evolving on dangerous ground. His journey has been chaotic and his luck ever changing, many times rising again after everyone thought he was finished.

Like so many others in Lebanon, Saad Hariri is the heir to his father’s political legacy and entered politics almost against his will. That he stepped into his father’s shoes is not uncommon in a country where numerous political assassinations have become the main factor for the rejuvenation of political elites.

When Rafic Hariri was killed in a massive car bombing on Feb. 14, 2005, Saad, his second son, was not prepared to be thrust so suddenly into a position of leadership. But when his family asked, he agreed to take over. It was not an easy task, and, as a businessman by training, Saad did not yet understand the subtleties of Lebanese politics.

His initiation into this new world began during a period of protracted crisis in Lebanon. The new leader of the Future Movement (FM), by far the most powerful political party in parliament in 2005, didn’t have the luxury of time to learn how to navigate his new role.

Thirteen years later, many Lebanese of various political backgrounds still view Saad Hariri as a political novice who lacks his father’s mastery for statesmanship. Often overlooked is the fact that it took Rafic Hariri more than a decade, marked by numerous failures, to become widely respected in Lebanon, the Middle East and the international community.

Lebanon has experienced many complex crises since 2005, and Saad, as he often admits, has stumbled and made mistakes. For some, he was too soft and made too many concessions, for others it is the opposite, he didn’t yield enough.

The first government

On June 27, 2009, President Michel Sleiman appointed Saad Hariri to form his first government. The designation came after a heavily polarized election that saw the March 14 political bloc, including Hariri’s Future Movement, claim victory over Hezbollah and its allies. It took nearly five months for a cabinet to be formed. In the end, despite the election results, it was a national unity government consisting of thirty ministers, including 10 from the pro-Hezbollah March 8 alliance, one short of the “blocking third” needed to override government decisions. The cabinet came together because of a compromise that saw the appointment of the supposedly independent Shiite, Adnan Sayyed Hussein, as part of the president’s quota.

Hariri opted to govern by consensus, an approach demanded by Hezbollah as compensation for what it perceived as an underrepresentation of the Shiite community in the government. As time passed, Hariri learned to navigate the difficulties of chairing the cabinet.

At the time, the economy was doing rather well as Lebanon escaped the impact of the global economic crisis. But in September 2010, the situation became more complicated. The so-called “false witnesses” affair, an attempt by Hezbollah to undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating Rafic Hariri’s assassination, threatened to derail the government. Relationships between cabinet members began to deteriorate, and Saad Hariri gave a first sign of weakness by being forced to reconnect with the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, under pressure form Saudi Arabia which was trying to improve relations with Damascus. The Syrian uprising would begin just a few months later.

The crisis came to a head on Jan. 12, 2011. While US President Barack Obama was hosting Saad Hariri at the White House, the ten March 8 ministers and Adnan Sayyed Hussein, no longer neutral, announced their resignation in Beirut. The move signalled the end of the government, with the parties backed by Syria and Iran responsible for its collapse.

The "black shirts"

In parliamentary consultations following the government’s collapse, a majority still favored Saad Hariri to continue to serve as Prime minister. The negotiations centered on attempts to tear Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s bloc away from the Hariri camp. During the jockeying, hundreds of Hezbollah militants dressed in black shirts took to the streets in Beirut. Their attempt at intimidation worked. Jumblatt’s bloc split in two: seven of its 11 MPs, including the head of Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), chose Nagib Mikati as Prime minister.

Mikati was not Hezbollah’s first choice, but the party, at that point, was ready to support anyone but Hariri to score a political victory. For Hariri, Mikati’s selection marked the beginning of a difficult period. He chose to go into a self-imposed exile, citing security concerns.

Two years later, Lebanon was reeling from the effects of the civil war in Syria, and Mikati’s government was struggling to distance itself from the conflict while Hezbollah was becoming increasingly involved in the fighting in support of the Syrian regime. Severe frictions led to the collapse of the government in March 2013.

But it wasn’t time for Hariri to make a comeback, even though March 14, including Hariri’s Future Movement, returned to a position of power. Instead, Hariri’s ally, Tammam Salam, was designated to succeed Mikati. But his government was confronted by even deeper tensions, increasing security issues from jihadist activity threatening to spill over from Syria and the 2015 garbage crisis. On top of that, the Salam government suffered from a severe lack of authority exacerbated by a presidential vacuum that started in spring 2014.

Genesis of a compromise

As the void dragged on, Hariri decided he wanted to return to the political scene. At the end of 2015, he proclaimed his support for Sleiman Frangieh to be Lebanon’s next president. His choice created controversy within both the March 8 and March 14 camps, and Hariri was not able to garner enough support for the move. In the end, he reluctantly approved the candidacy of the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) Michel Aoun for the presidency, who had already the support of Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF).

Aoun was elected president at the end of October 2016, and a few days later, Aoun named Prime minister the same man whom he had wished to give a “one way ticket” out of Lebanon in 2011. Now, Hariri and Aoun pledged to end political polarization between March 8 and March 14.

As Prime minister-designate, Hariri formed his second government rather quickly, at least by Lebanese standards. He hoped that Aoun and the FPM, lead by Gebran Bassil, would act independently from Hezbollah, allowing for a good working relationship between the two poles of the executive branch. The close collaboration upset Geagea, a traditional Hariri ally and Aoun’s rival. For his part, Aoun, and his allies, gave Hariri some political and diplomatic guarantees while maintaining a minimal strategic link with Hezbollah.

But Saudi Arabia, with close ties to Hariri, was not happy with the compromises he made. On Nov. 4, 2017, Hariri abruptly resigned as Prime minister in a staged speech televised from Riyadh. Speculation spread that the Lebanese Prime minister was being held hostage by his Saudi benefactors. A spectacular series of events followed: after nearly two weeks, Hariri left Saudi Arabia in a “rescue operation” orchestrated by French President Emmanuel Macron, returned to Beirut to triumphant celebrations, rescinded his resignation and pledged to distance Lebanese politics from regional alliances.

Pragmatism in power

Back in Lebanon, Hariri returned to the pragmatic and moderate approach to governing that had angered Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), but not without giving MBS several concessions, such as the dismissal of his adviser Nader Hariri.

Despite some hiccups, the Hariri-Aoun partnership has endured. Their political blocs have worked together on numerous issues, even when the rest of the government – and a sizeable chunk of the public – has disapproved of their measures. But Lebanon’s deepening economic crisis, the failure to address chronic electricity shortages and waste management issues and the feeling that nothing is being done to end corruption has led to a growing sense of despair about the country’s future.

To try to address this malaise, Hariri turned to the international community, appealing for support at one conference after another. At the CEDRE conference in Paris in April 2018, international donors promised more than $11 billion to Lebanon, but the funding was conditional on structural reforms that successive Lebanese governments have failed to implement.

In this context, Lebanon held legislative election on May 6. A new election law cost the Future Movement around a dozen seats in parliament. But despite the losses, now more than ever, Hariri is the undisputed leader of the Sunni community. At the same time, Lebanon’s political system is drifting towards a kind of sectarian federalism that sees the highest positions in the government awarded to the most representative leaders from their respective communities. Given this arrangement, Hariri, inevitably, remains Prime minister.

His position has been reinforced by the international community, which sees him as a moderate and pragmatic partner, and his role in the government guarantees that Lebanon will not fall entirely into Iran’s sphere of influence. Hariri’s pragmatism was evident in his statement on the forthcoming verdict from the STL, emphasizing that Lebanon needs to preserve its stability at all costs. He has also established good relations with Moscow and become a trusted partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Putin has sponsored the Syrian regime and maneuvered his way into being a major player in the region.

This pragmatism and moderation is where Saad Hariri’s strength resides. Similar to his father, today, he is the Lebanese politician who can open the most doors in the international community, whether it is Putin’s, Macron’s, US President Donald Trump’s, or even MBS’s.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 31st of January)

At 48, Saad Hariri will be presiding his third cabinet in nine years, as Lebanon agreed, on Thursday evening, a new government, ending months of wrangling between rival political factions. Since he was propelled into the maelstrom of Lebanese politics almost 14 years ago, Saad Hariri has been evolving on dangerous ground. His journey has been chaotic and his luck ever changing, many times...