The success of We Vote for Change is one of the big surprises in the 2022 elections. The number of votes secured by the list, led by Saida MP Ousama Saad in alliance with Abdel Rahman Bizri, a leading doctor in the fight against COVID-19, caught many observers by surprise. The list won three seats: the two Sunni seats in the southern capital, and a Maronite seat in Jezzine, which was completely unexpected.
Ousama Saad is the son of former MP Maarouf Saad, a trade unionist killed during a 1975 demonstration against a private company’s fishing monopoly in Saida. With this election he has become the most recent figure of Lebanon’s old guard Arab left to have political weight, although his position might have cost him dearly.
“The mumma’aa [resistance axis],” Saad said, “is not a continuation of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policy.”
These remarks, which the Saida MP expressed in a television program broadcast a few days before parliamentary elections, might be an allegory for Saad’s divorce from his Shiite allies, mainly Hezbollah.
Often perceived as Hezbollah’s main ally in Saida, although he had not joined the Hezbollah-aligned Sunni MPs in Parliament, the MP’s relations with the party have soured since 2019.
This decision lost him significant support compared to the 2018 elections, when his alliance with Amal and Hezbollah saw him win more than 1,500 of the 9,980 preferential votes he obtained.
Given the lack of a true Sunni ally, Nabih Berri’s protégé Ibrahim Azar could not make it to Parliament.
“There have always been disagreements with Amal-Hezbollah but the straw that broke the camel’s back was the Oct. 17” uprising, Saad told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Despite his status as a political heir and MP, Saad is known for his modesty and popularity in his city. He is also generally liked by the protesters who perceive him as a person committed to their interests in the face of the political and financial elite.
Since the start of the Oct. 17 uprising, he sided with the thawra, while Amal and Hezbollah often accused the demonstrators of being the tools in a Western plot.
As a result, the head of the Nasserist Popular Organization even denounced his former ally’s weapons.
“For us, the state must obviously have a monopoly over arms and foreign policy. Resistance emerges when the state can no longer carry out these duties, and thus reflects a popular will to revolt against the status quo. But today, the weapons are more likely to be used to defend the status quo against the revolt,” said Saad.
For him, state reforms, a national dialogue on Hezbollah’s weapons and defense strategy are the main political objectives moving forward.
These views echo those of Charbel Massaad, the new Maronite MP for Jezzine, who ran with Saad on the same list. Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, he called for “the armament of the Lebanese Armed Forces to be able to face illegal weapons and help build the state.”
Because of his position, Saad’s name is often included among the serious nominees for the prime minister’s post. “I have my feet on the ground,” he said when asked about his ambitions to enter the Serail.
“Who serves as prime minister matters less than his program. We are for the formation of a transitional Cabinet that can get Lebanon out of this crisis and reform political mechanisms,” he said. Saad hopes to join a large parliamentary opposition bloc, though few observers and activists place him among the MPs who emerged from the Oct. 17 demonstrations — as opposed to Massaad, a political newcomer.
Analyzing Saad’s success requires some nuance.
The absence of the Future Movement, which wanted to follow Saad Hariri’s lead in boycotting the elections, has surely benefited him. Thanks to Bahia Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s sister and the real baroness of the city, Saida is a Hariri stronghold.
Sources have claimed that Bahia Hariri mobilized supporters to vote for the We Vote for Change in order to block Yousef Naqib, a candidate close to former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Seen to be close to the Hariri family, Siniora has led national efforts to fill the void left by Saad Hariri and to build an “alternative leadership,” much to the displeasure of the Future Movement head.
Bahia Hariri’s implicit support could explain the skyrocketing number of votes Bizri received compared to 2018, when he won just over 3,500 votes, compared to over 8,500 in 2022.
By comparison, Saad’s election tally dropped to about 7,400 votes. It should be noted, however, that in the 2004 municipal elections, when the Future Movement was still then at the height of its political power, the alliance of the rival Saad and Bizri families enabled them to overcome Future having Bizri elected president of Saida municipality.
Hezbollah, whose close associates often count Saad as an ally and downplay their differences, seems to insist on maintaining ties with the Saida MP. Thus after Saad was re-elected, Hezbollah immediately dispatched a delegation to congratulate him.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle Khoury.