From Safadi back to Hariri: Lebanon’s search for a prime minister

Saad al-Hariri

By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

Lebanon is in search of a new prime minister to replace Saad Hariri, who resigned on October 29 amid protests against government corruption and economic woes under his leadership. But the larger, more complicated question is who (or what) will replace him?

On November 14, the informal designation of Mohammad Safadi, a controversial business tycoon, as the prime minster of the next Lebanese cabinet was a glaring miscalculation by President Michel Aoun‘s team. The uprising, which erupted on October 17, did not accept Safadi and his quick refusal to succeed Hariri came as no surprise.

When Hariri resigned, few expected Aoun to re-designate him. Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, these three dominant Iranian-backed parties, have been trying to convince Hariri to form a new cabinet, which they say is to be composed of known politicians and experts. But Hariri, following the demands of the uprising for non-political specialists, refuses Aoun’s formula.

There are reasons for Aoun’s pursuit of Hariri. What makes him so indispensable is his personal quality of malleability and his ability to maintain good relations with the Iran-backed Lebanese parties. At the same time, he makes good use of his wide contacts with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab Gulf states. Furthermore, his Aounist’s opponents want him to stay in power; they do not wish to see Hariri suddenly disappear and leave them alone to face growing public unrest. Finally, Hariri’s relations in the Western countries, which have pledged substantial foreign aid to Lebanon, could be used to save the country from financial default, as stability of recipient is what really counts for foreign aid.

But Hariri has his own requirements to re-assume leadership. He wants to be freed from a regime which is backed by parties opposed to his Western oriented coalition. Knowing well that he is not very popular at home, he could ride the wave of the uprising by leading a non-political cabinet which might satisfy some of their demands.

For the moment, the search for a suitable candidate to replace Hariri is deadlocked for a number of reasons. Three former Lebanese prime ministers asked for Hariri’s return and opposed Safadi’s designation. No other candidate has shown serious interest. Conditional support for Hariri is coming from various sides: the government wants him because he is easy to please, and the uprising may be willing to tolerate his leadership because he insists on forming a non-political cabinet. Finally, whomever is prime minister is no longer that important. What matters is the level of opposition the prime minister receives from Hezbollah and its allies.

How unyielding is this deadlock? The government and the uprising are testing each other’s will. Aoun’s government is weighing the cost of giving in to the people’s demands against the cost of staying in power and becoming increasingly isolated and humiliated. The uprising, on the other hand, is weighing the risk of driving the country into the unknown against the risk of living in a country with no future.

Behind the current deadlock there is some softening of positions on both sides. On the regime side, Hezbollah has embraced the “laudable aspiration” of the uprising and has stopped threatening to use force to “save” Lebanon from “chaos.” Incidentally, this week, the photo of Ali Ammar, a Hezbollah parliament member, participating in an uprising event, went viral on social media.

As for the uprising, it has shown some signs of accepting the possible return of Hariri to head a government of technocrats. The uprising recently produced two documents showing plans for an 18-month political-transition. The figures in the uprising leadership are gradually emerging and so is their readiness for dialogue with the government.

There are rumors that the president might announce that Hariri is free to form a cabinet without any restrictions. But the chances for a nonpolitical cabinet to receive a vote of confidence in parliament are not good. Such a failure might lead Aoun to designate a new prime minister selected from his camp, who would likely form the predictable status quo government. It’s also possible that the chaos emerging from delayed or failed governance may set the stage for a military coup d’état to “save the country.”

In despair, outside sources of intervention may be needed to relieve Lebanon. One key factor is the potential rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The former could free Lebanon from its Hariri fixation and the latter could pressure Hezbollah to relax its grip on power. There are recent signs of some thawing of tension between Riyadh and Tehran, over Yemen and Syria, but Lebanon cannot wait for long to benefit from such regional miracles. 

The bottom line is that there are currently no good options. There is still no clear leadership in the uprising and and the internal government power struggles have yielded more confusion.

Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab-American writer, journalist, and commentator on issues of development, peace, and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.

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