In the aftermath of Saad Hariri’s withdrawal from politics last week, the question on many people’s minds was what would happen to Lebanon’s Sunni community, now that it was without its long-standing political leader.
One scenario was of particular concern. With Mr Hariri saying he would not be a candidate in parliamentary elections in May, and another former prime minister, Tammam Salam, also announcing he would not stand, all eyes turned to a third former prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and to the current head of government, Najib Mikati. Mr Mikati has hinted he himself might not run, while Mr Siniora may be constrained to do the same by the withdrawal of his ally, Mr Hariri.
What would happen then? One argument is that if four former prime ministers are not candidates, second-tier Sunni parliamentarians, who had been elected on their lists, might also choose to not participate. And if so, this could result in a de facto partial Sunni election boycott.
The implications for Lebanon’s sectarian system would be immense. The Sunnis are one of the country’s leading communities and numerically perhaps the largest. If their principal candidates opted not to run, it would effectively delegitimise the electoral process. Such a situation could lead to a postponement of elections.
Ironically, this outcome alarmed Mr Hariri’s political adversaries, namely Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun. Without a Sunni cover, Hezbollah would find itself isolated at the top of the state, amid growing hostility from Lebanese Sunnis and many Christians.
Mr Aoun’s primary aim today is to have his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, succeed him later this year when his term ends. If Sunnis were to not participate in elections, it is conceivable that the current batch of Sunni parliamentarians could resign from parliament as well, undermining the election of a president (parliament elects presidents in Lebanon). This would derail Mr Bassil’s presidential ambitions.
Last weekend, the probability of such a development appeared to lessen somewhat, when Mr Mikati and Mr Siniora declared that they opposed a boycott. However, this was only mildly reassuring, as neither of them affirmed he would be a candidate, even if each one might support candidate lists. Yet the question remained the same: If the two men did not themselves run, might other leading Sunnis do so?
Sensing the political risks, Mr Aoun did something unprecedented on Saturday. He visited the leading Sunni religious figure, Mufti Abdul-Latif Deryan, and affirmed the importance of the Sunni contribution to politics. Mr Aoun stated, “We do not want the Sunni sect to leave political life in Lebanon, because we have heard a boycott may occur… When Lebanon loses one of its major components, it threatens the society to which we are accustomed and in which we were brought up.”
While the Mikati and Siniora statements, followed by the President’s, were reassuring, they did not dispel a suspicion that, by withdrawing, Mr Hariri may have also tried to set a trap for Hezbollah. In his speech announcing his decision to step down, he implied that because of Iranian and Hezbollah domination of Lebanon, involvement in domestic politics served no purpose. It was better to let Hezbollah run the country alone, and face the backlash to its errors.
If Sunnis were to act on this view, Hezbollah would face a very serious challenge. The Sunni action would be exacerbated by the fact that many Christians hold the party responsible for the Beirut port explosion of August 2020, which devastated mainly Christian areas, and believe it is now trying to block an investigation of the disaster.
Assuming that a de facto boycott does happen, the solutions to avert the worst are not evident. The government may try to postpone elections, which would require that the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, secure a vote by parliament to extend its term. However, if Sunni parliamentarians, mostly from Mr Hariri’s bloc, were to resign en masse, this would undermine the legitimacy of the move.
For many Sunnis, bringing home to Hezbollah how much the party is reliant on Sunni compliance to function would be very tempting. It would be doubly so as Hezbollah has not hesitated to humiliate Sunnis, as in May 2008 when it overran many Sunni neighbourhoods following a political dispute, or as it continues to do today, when its leaders regularly insult Sunni-majority Arab states.
The risk, however, is that a standoff between Sunnis and Shiites could balloon into a sectarian confrontation over the direction in which Hezbollah is taking Lebanon. Most Lebanese, it is safe to say, strongly oppose the party’s efforts to carry Lebanon into the Iranian camp. Hezbollah has shown it cares little about such misgivings. By pushing the party out on a limb to face the consequences of its actions alone, the Sunnis may see an opening to make Hezbollah pay for its haughtiness.