Hariri’s political partners in the 2016 presidential compromise, which paved the way for the current government, have responded to the protest movement with intransigence. They have refused to make concessions, including refusing to let go of Gibran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), as part of a cabinet reshuffle or new government, a popular demand of the protesters. In response, Hariri chose to put their backs against the wall.
By resigning without consulting the president, or even the FPM, Hariri wanted to break the deadlock while also leaving the door open for his possible return as Prime Minister, under specific conditions.
Sources close to Hariri’s office mentioned that he would possibly agree to form the next government if he were re-appointed and if the next government was to be composed of experts, neutral figures and people who are known for their integrity, a formula that is supposed to satisfy the streets.
If Hariri’s conditions are accepted it would mean that President Aoun, and especially his allies in Hezbollah, would be open to the demands of the street. For the time being, however, following the violent message that Amal and Hezbollah sent to the protestors on Tuesday just hours before Hariri resigned, Hezbollah’s position remains the biggest unknown.
Hezbollah––the only party other than Amal that was informed of Hariri’s resignation in advance––has still not officially commented on Hariri’s initiative. Through one of its ministers, Mohammad Fneich, the party indirectly implied that it would not consent to a cabinet that it was not included in.
"Do not downplay the importance of certain political components that have their say and their position," Fneich said in an interview with al-Markaziya news agency. "The exclusion is unacceptable,” he added, suggesting that it would be an "insurrection" against the party and an attempt to change the existing "equation", floating the specter of “chaos” that Hezbollah’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah brandished last Friday. In his speech, Nasrallah had clearly stated that that the symbols of the political consensus of the past six years––the Presidency of the Republic, the Government and Parliament––cannot be called into question or undermined.
Hariri telling his political partners that "there is... a serious opportunity that should not be lost" does not mean that Hezbollah will be willing to accept the creation of a politically neutral government. If this ends up happening, it would mean that Hezbollah would be agreeing to destroy the protection afforded to it by the presidential compromise, which has not only guaranteed the party’s legitimacy internally, but externally as well.
Baabda is still absorbing the shock of Hariri’s resignation. Sources close to the President said that Aoun needs some time to think before coming to a decision. The President will not take any initiative until he has put in place a road map and defined the shape of the next government. In the meantime, he asked the cabinet to work in a caretaker capacity.
The FPM also has not made any official comment of the resignation, aside from some reactions from Aounist circles accusing Hariri of “fleeing his responsibilities”. Supporters of the president are also angry with Hariri for having “failed to coordinate” an exit strategy with the Aounist movement and for overstepping the FPM, which has positioned itself as one of the most influential political parties in Lebanon and one of the pillars of reconciliation and compromise.
By refraining from consulting the FPM before resigning, Hariri probably wanted to get back at Bassil (and the Head of State) by reminding him that he had tried––unsuccessfully––to find a way out of the current crisis. Hariri’s latest attempts, including the idea of forming a technocratic government without political figures in it, were thwarted by the FPM’s refusal to have Hariri preside over a non-political cabinet. If Bassil had to leave the cabinet, so did Hariri, the thinking went. “We all leave or we all stay,” the FPM was advocating.
Yesterday, Hariri wanted to raise the bar and send an indirect message that a prime minister cannot be positioned at the same level as a minister. Another idea that was rejected was choosing ministers that are not represented in Parliament: a subtle way of dismissing Bassil. Hezbollah refused the proposal, not wanting to let down its Christian ally, who are of strategic importance for the parties survival. Hence the deadlock.
Now, all eyes are on Baabda. In theory, the President should entrust Hariri with the responsibility of dealing with the current government’s day-to-day business. The question now is whether the resigned Prime Minister’s demands will be taken into consideration and whether Aoun, under the pressure of Hariri’s resignation, will accept what he has refused for the past 10 days.
If Parliament now decides to nominate a Sunni leader aligned with the March 8 camp for the position of new prime minister, who will be tasked with forming a new government, there could be a confrontation with the popular uprising, as sources close to the Prime Minister’s office have pointed out. If this happens, it is likely that the peaceful uprising will be repressed and there’s a risk that a repeat of events similar to May 7, 2008 could be seen. The anger that took hold of the Sunni street yesterday in Beirut is a warning sign of what could come next.
A second possible scenario is the possibility that no new government will be formed and that Hariri will continue to take care of the day-to-day affairs of his resigned government; a situation that will only aggravate the crisis and, in turn, not encourage the protestors to leave the streets.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 30th of october)