“We have reached a dead end.” So said a shell-shocked Saad Hariri, standing in front of a portrait of his late father Rafic, as he announced the resignation of the entire Lebanese government.
As crowds cheered in the street and waved flags, the sombre prime minister admitted: “No one is bigger than this country.”
The announcement follows an extraordinary fortnight in Lebanon. For 13 days, more than one million Lebanese people have taken to the streets, demanding the fall of the government and rising up against sectarian-based politics, widespread corruption, unemployment and poor access to basic services. That they have achieved their aim in such a short time might give them cause for celebration tonight but tomorrow, the sobering thought of what might replace the outgoing government will undoubtedly strike home. It is critical that those elements who already seek to sow divides among the Lebanese, such as Hezbollah, are not able to exploit this power vacuum. This is a precarious moment and it is vital whoever is responsible for taking the country forward seeks to establish stability and security quickly.
In truth, Mr Hariri was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Blamed for many of Lebanon’s failures, the clock was ticking on his time in power - but the fall of the government with him was an unexpected consequence of a great swelling of discontent over years of incompetence and inefficiency. Mr Hariri tried to quell public disquiet by announcing a host of sweeping government reforms eight days ago – but it was too little too late. A proposed cabinet shuffle also failed to stay the tide of resentment. The powerful Hezbollah and its Free Patriotic Movement ally refused to accept a change of leadership that might have de-escalated the situation. As a result, more than a million people took to the streets at the height of the demonstrations. Given these circumstances, Mr Hariri had little choice but to resign.
Now that he has quit, Lebanon is running out of time to find a consensus that will end the current crisis. If parliament cannot agree on a new prime minister, Mr Hariri might need to remain in power as head of a caretaker government. This could be a lengthy process taking years. For instance, before president Michel Aoun took up his role, the country was left without a head of state for two years. But even if parliament agrees on another prime minister, there is no guarantee that protesters will be satisfied with the new nominee.
Nor does the government's resignation resolve the country’s woes. People on the streets are not rising up against one man, they are demanding the fall of an entire system based on corrupt sectarian politics. Mr Hariri was simply the face of this system, and he was not even one of its worst offenders. He is, in fact, one of the rare political leaders in the country without blood on his hands. Many of Lebanon’s top officials today are warlords turned politicians, including Mr Aoun and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.
However, Mr Hariri’s rise to power is indicative of many of the flaws of Lebanon’s political system. He was a businessman for most of his life and only became a political figure in 2005 when he took on the leadership of the Future Movement after the assassination of his father, who was prime minister at the time. He has since been Lebanon’s prime minister twice, leading two unity governments. This tradition of political dynasties is one of the causes of opprobrium from protesters but Mr Hariri’s case is in no way unique. Mr Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who is also foreign minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, has been vying for the presidency for years. Meanwhile, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt announced two years ago that his son Taymour will be his political successor.
His son’s legacy will be one of a plethora of political impasses that propelled him into the position of mediator. Lebanon does not have a two-party system. It is instead governed by a number of parties, none of which have a majority in parliament on their own. The country’s political system relies instead on coalitions between these factions and sectarian-based groups to be able to function. Despite these difficulties, Mr Hariri often managed to find compromises to get political leaders to resolve their differences. One of his biggest challenges was Hezbollah’s rising influence in the country, which his party has been unable to counter. Backed into a corner, he has led a unity government since 2016 in which the terrorist group wielded far too much power and left little room for sensible voices to be heard. With him gone, there is a chance that Hezbollah will take advantage and attempt to find a pro-Iranian replacement for Mr Hariri.
This prospect is likely to anger protesters even more but the terror group has not shied away from using violence to intimidate those who oppose it and has already started targeting protesters. A government in which Hezbollah plays an even more powerful role must be avoided at all costs. Mr Hariri’s resignation might be a victory for the protest movement but for now, it is a cosmetic change only. A great mountain of tasks lies ahead of Lebanon’s future leader to put an end to the country’s problems.