Lebanon’s prime minister hapless amid upheaval

Saad Hariri caught between protesters' demands for government to quit and Hezbollah's insistence that he stay

A demonstrator holds a banner during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2019. The banner reads ''You are the sectarians and we are the co-existentialists''. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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Prime Minister Saad Hariri strikes an inconsequential figure amid the upheaval in Lebanon, except for his value to rivals as head of a system that has largely fallen under the influence of Hezbollah.

The son of late statesman Rafic Hariri has been powerless to prevent attacks on demonstrators who have been protesting since Thursday, initially in response to a tax on WhatsApp calls and other levies.

Mr Hariri, 49, has staked his political career on saving the ailing  economy and failed.

But he is still regarded by financial markets to be Lebanon’s best chance to gather support, internally and abroad, for a plan to control public debt and avert collapse.

That debt now stands at one and a half times the gross domestic product.

Mr Hariri also represents a political status quo that suits Hezbollah. He has remained silent as the authorities clamped down on public critics of the group and its role as an Iranian proxy.

But in a rare instance of cross-sectarianism since Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Shiites have joined the mass demonstrations, pointing to Hezbollah as part of the political class of which they want to be rid.

This is the moment of reckoning for Saad Hariri

In recent years, signs of public outrage  over Hezbollah’s military support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad were made to disappear.

Ordinary Shiites who criticised its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for military adventurism were forced to recant.

Today, protesters on TV are openly criticising the group and almost all of the country's political leaders.

A significant proportion of Hezbollah’s constituency, from its stronghold in southern Beirut to the coastal city of Sidon, appear to be among those turning against the sectarian patronage from which it benefits.

Shiite demonstrators attacked the offices of Hezbollah MPs and chanted against its main ally, Nabih Berri, head of the Amal movement and the Speaker of Parliament since the late Hafez Al Assad installed him in the position in the early 1990s.

Members of Amal beat protesters in Sidon after they chanted against Mr Berri.

Under Lebanon’s system, where 18 official sects share power, government jobs and perks, the parliamentary speaker is Shiite, the prime minister Sunni and the president Christian.

Although the position of prime minister was enhanced under a new constitution at the end of the civil war, power in Lebanon has steadily shifted to Hezbollah since 2006.

The group expanded its power in January this year after Mr Hariri’s bloc lost seats in Parliament. Hezbollah took three rather than the usual two Cabinet seats in the unity government.

The deal did not avert Lebanon’s deepest economic crisis since the civil war. Mr Hariri’s efforts to secure a lifeline to stave off pressure on the Lebanese pound has stagnated.

Reforms needed to tap into pledges of $11 billion in foreign aid have not materialised, while his relationship with Hezbollah has kept traditional Gulf allies away.

The dollar peg that Mr Hariri has committed to preserving is close to breaking and access to dollars has been restricted as Lebanese seek to dump the national currency.

He suggested on Friday that he might resign within 72 hours if parties did not back his economic plan.

But no Cabinet had made any significant reforms since Lebanon’s public debt started ballooning in the mid-1990s, partly due to the fragmentation in the political system.

The country went 10 years without passing a national budget until 2017, leading to massive, unaccounted spending.

On Saturday, Mr Nasrallah said he was against Mr Hariri resigning, and warned that Hezbollah would not allow the demonstrations to topple President Michel Aoun, a formal ally of Hezbollah but the founder of a party once close to Mr Hariri.

Mr Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, is Foreign Minister and leader of the president’s Free Patriotic Movement.

He has been groomed to succeed Mr Aoun, who became president after another deal between Mr Hariri and Hezbollah in 2016.

But the anger on the streets could put that succession plan in jeopardy.

Mr Nasrallah said Hezbollah would “go on to the streets, changing all the equations” to prevent Mr Aoun being toppled.

During a political standoff with Mr Hariri in 2008, Hezbollah gunmen took over large areas in Beirut.

International pressure piled on the Syrian regime, then a major sponsor of Hezbollah, together with Iran, after the assassination of Rafic Hariri and 21 others in a lorry bombing in Beirut in 2005.

An international tribunal in The Hague indicted four Hezbollah operatives for the assassination in a continuing trial.

Today the Shiite community appears split. Many have taken to the streets to voice anger, helping to give the protest movement a national appeal, but other hardcore loyalists have stayed on the sidelines or stepped in to beat the protesters.

Khaled Kassar, head of Lebanon’s Corporate Social Responsibility forum, said there was no clear economic fix that Mr Hariri could use to hang on to his position.

Mr Kassar said Lebanon’s prospects of escaping financial disaster would be better served by a new government of technocrats, a proposal put forward by members of the Lebanese intelligentsia that Mr Aoun and Hezbollah appear to oppose.

A Lebanese protester lifts a picture of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in a wig during a rally in downtown Beirut on the third day of demonstrations against tax increases and official corruption, on October 19, 2019. The writing "sashay away" refers to a catchphrase from a drag queen TV show meaning "leave".  / AFP / IBRAHIM AMRO
A picture of Prime Minister Saad Hariri at an October 19, 2019 rally in downtown Beirut. "Sashay away" is a catchphrase from a drag queen TV show meaning "leave".  Afp

"This is the moment of reckoning for Saad. By resigning, the protest movement will have one less obstacle and go for Baabda," he told The National, referring to the presidential palace.

The announcement by the Christian-majority Lebanese Forces party that it was quitting the government should make it easier for Mr Hariri to resign, but the decision is an almost impossible one.

He can stay on as a reviled figure who ignored the demands of a large segment of the population and try to weather the protests, or step down and possibly unleash political and financial chaos.