Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 6 December 2020

Lebanon’s last Hezbollah-backed Prime Minister was sworn in in 2011: what happened then?

Like Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab, Najib Mikati was backed by Hezbollah and its allies during his premiership between 2011 and 2014.

Lebanese PM Hassan Diab and previous Lebanese PM Najib Mikati. AFP/ EPA
Lebanese PM Hassan Diab and previous Lebanese PM Najib Mikati. AFP/ EPA

With the backing of Hezbollah and its allies, Lebanese academic Hassan Diab was named on Thursday as the next prime minister of Lebanon.

His nomination came a day after caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri, who has strong connections to the west and the Gulf, again ruled himself out for the position.

Should Mr Diab manage to form a government – which he said he hopes will take no more than six weeks but, in the past, has taken months or years in Lebanon – it would be the first time since 2014 that Hezbollah has propelled a prime minister into power.

There is still the chance that he will fail to form a cabinet that will get the backing of parliament, especially if the parties who did not nominate him refuse to give him their vote.

Not only did Mr Diab fail to get the backing of Mr Hariri’s Future Movement; he did not secure an endorsement from any major Sunni figure, including former prime minister Najib Mikati. Mr Mikati headed the last government considered to be sympathetic to Hezbollah between 2011 and 2014.

Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing system dictates that the country’s prime minister must always be a Sunni Muslim and ideally, that he receives strong political support from his peers.

A 60-year-old professor of electrical engineering for the past 34 years at the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB), Mr Diab has only served a short spell in politics,when he served as Education Minister for three years in Mr Mikati's government.

Mr Diab, like Mr Mikati, came to power after Mr Hariri.

In 2011, his government collapsed after ministers from Hezbollah and its allies walked out over tensions caused by the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, Rafik. The dramatic move came as Mr Hariri was meeting then US President Barack Obama.

This year, Saad Hariri quit on October 29, after 13 days of nation-wide anti-government protests spurred by the country’s worst economic crisis since the civil war ended in 1990.

But similarities between the period up to 2011 and now stop there, said Lebanese political analyst Imad Salamey.

Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon’s Parliament and government has increased while the Future Movement is weaker, thanks to the results of the 2018 Parliamentary elections.

Mr Mikati was only elected thanks to the swing vote of the Progressive Socialist Party, which this time, did not back Mr Diab.

Unlike today, when politicians’ most pressing issue is solving the economic crisis, Mr Mikati’s difficulties were mostly linked to political and security problems as well as the wider regional situation.

Lebanon was rocked by a string of political assassinations targeting high-profile figures close to the Hariri family. The general state of insecurity, in addition to political infighting about a new electoral law, caused the 2013 Parliamentary elections to be pushed until 2018.

One of those killed was former finance minister Mohammad Chatah, a prominent Sunni Muslim politician. Mr Hariri implicitly accused Hezbollah of plotting his assassination. The group has always denied this, as well as any involvement in the death of Rafik Hariri.

Mr Chatah’s son, investment banker Omar Chatah, 35, believes that Mr Diab’s nomination this week is more controversial than political developments in 2011.

For him, Mr Diab’s lack of support from the Sunni Muslim community will only inflame sectarian tensions.

“I personally believe that Hassan Diab will not be able to form a cabinet,” he told The National. “I think Hariri will be brought back some way, but these are dangerous political negotiations that risk inflaming sectarian tensions which go against the initial spirit of the protests.”

To a certain extent, President Michel Aoun responded to protesters’ demands by nominating Mr Diab, who is a technocrat with little political experience.

However, Mr Chatah argued that what is problematic is that veteran politicians representing the country’s two other main sects, Shiite Muslim Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Maronite Christian president Aoun, remain in power, while Mr Hariri had to leave.

“Either all of them had to leave, or they needed to appoint an influential Sunni figure to head a technocratic government,” said Mr Chatah, echoing Mr Hariri’s arguments.

“Sunni Muslims feel that the president and Parliament speaker have not been touched by the revolution and here is this Sunni leader who is just parachuted in from one side. It just shows that the Sunni community is considered irrelevant.”

Protests and roadblocks erupted just hours after Mr Diab’s nomination in Sunni majority areas of Lebanon. Videos of men chanting their support for Mr Hariri circulated on social media.

Sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims were also a problem for Mr Mikati, pushing him to eventually resign, observed Mr Salamey. However, they were caused at the time by a spill-over of the civil war in Syria, which started in 2011.

“There was significant pressure against Mikati from the Sunni street. Additionally, the situation looked like it was swinging in favour of Hezbollah’s opponents because of the Syrian revolution,” said Mr Salamey.

The tide has since turned with Damascus, a major ally of Iran-backed Hezbollah, emerging victorious from the war.

In an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle on Friday, Mr Diab firmly rejected claims that he would head a Hezbollah-friendly government, arguing that he would give priority to technocrats.

His comments line with the position of both Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, the party founded by the president. Both have said that there should be a mix of experts and politicians. But protesters on the street have made it clear that this will not do.

There are also concerns, in particular within the Future Movement and its supporters, that Mr Diab will be under the influence of groups such as the Free Patriotic Movement.

Mr Diab promised that he would form a government quickly, in "a period that does not exceed six week". That would be a feat. Mr Hariri took nine months to form the last government.

The Lebanese will hold him under close scrutiny to see if he delivers on his promises. As Mr Diab tweeted on November 3, long before his nomination: “do not listen to what they say, but watch what they do.”

Updated: December 21, 2019 03:24 PM

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