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Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s largest Sunni party, announced in January that he would be suspending his political career, urging his Future Movement party members not to participate in the May general elections.
Though his popularity has dwindled, Saad’s departure marks a significant turn in the country’s political scene – one that has been dominated, especially on the Sunni front, by the Hariris since the end of the civil war.
In a country where the complex and delicate confessional power-sharing arrangement is constantly being tested, Hariri’s allies and adversaries have reportedly tried to persuade him out of the move for fear of losing Sunni representation, according to many local media sites.
Nevertheless, his announcement seems to have paved the way for his brother Bahaa Hariri.
Just days after Saad’s emotional announcement, his older brother Bahaa declared in a taped message that he would be following in his father’s footsteps, the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“Through partnership and solidarity, we will enter the battle to take back the country and the sovereignty of the country from its occupiers,” he said, in clear reference to Hezbollah.
Saad was thrown into Lebanon’s tumultuous political landscape after his father, the late prime minister and billionaire businessman Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in February 2005. Bahaa, on the other hand, opted away from politics, choosing to focus on his businesses abroad.
“It was anticipated at first that Bahaa was going to be the successor. Then the Saudis decided on Saad as a better fit for the alleged reason that his personality was more lenient and flexible,” political analyst Karim Bitar told Fanack.
Seen by many as a moderate figure, Saad launched his political career with a strong anti-Hezbollah, pro-Western stance. Massive protests, dubbed the “Cedar Revolution” uprising that erupted in the aftermath of his father’s assassination, eventually ended the decades-long Syrian occupation of Lebanon, paving the way to political victory for the “March 14” coalition in both 2005 and 2009.
However, over the years, Saad would make several concessions to Hezbollah – even though a United Nations-backed tribunal had sentenced a member of the group in his father’s assassination – which inevitably tarnished his reputation and cost him the support of the majority of the Sunni street.
“I used to be a supporter of Saad… Then I realized that he was just as bad as the others. Bahaa may be smarter as a businessman but I don’t trust him either,” Lara Harb, a former supporter of Saad Hariri, 25, told Fanack.
The end of the “Harirism Era” culminating in the 2019 uprising aggravated Saad’s condition. The consequences of Rafik Hariri’s neoliberal fiscal policies, which left most Lebanese reliant on a clientelism system and dependent on politicians for jobs, education, and healthcare, came crashing down.
According to Bitar, the rentier economy on which Rafik Hariri rebuilt post-war Beirut, massively contributed to the 2019 financial meltdown, in which the Lebanese Lira lost over 85% of its value.
“Although I think the father had a more positive impact than his son [Saad], I lost faith in the family after realizing how much of the country’s debt was attributed to Rafik Hariri’s economic policies,” Harb said.
Saad’s fall from grace
Rafik Hariri was a well-connected businessman with ambitions for economic and developmental growth in the country. Some of his projects included rebuilding the destroyed central district of the capital, following the 1975-1990 civil war, the Hariri Foundation, which offered scholarships to students in Lebanon and abroad, and several nationwide healthcare centers. In this respect, the father became a central figure in the Lebanese domestic scene, especially among Sunni constituents, and Saad would eventually attempt to walk in his father’s shadow.
“People from all sects admired him [Rafik Hariri] but as for Saad, well I personally never liked him. He seemed too soft to be a politician,” Nouh Kamel, a 60-year-old retired businessman, told Fanack.
Saad has served 3 terms as prime minister, and has resigned twice before in the past.
Yet his fall from grace did not happen overnight. It was accelerated in 2016 when he took office again as prime minister of a coalition government with Hezbollah. Deals were made to back the election of his political nemesis, the pro-Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun, as president.
A year later in 2017, the company he inherited from his father, Saudi Oger, suspended its operations, due to several financial setbacks.
To make matters worse, Saudi authorities apparently detained him that same year, forcing him to resign in a televised speech in protest of Hezbollah’s ever increasing role in Lebanon’s political scene. Following his release, he rescinded his resignation and resumed his term as prime minister.
He had already lost favor among Lebanon’s Sunnis, but the closure of the daily Future (Al Mustaqbal) newspaper and the Future TV channel in 2019, which rendered thousands jobless, revealed that on the business front, he too was inept.
“As a media student myself, this happened around the time I graduated from university and wanted to intern there [Future TV]. It was very disheartening for Saad’s supporters,” Harb said.
Despite this, many people still saw him as a distraught son of a martyr who was continuously given a tough ride by his peers, Bitar explained. A man who made “correct choices with disastrous implications,” according to Mustapha Allouch, a former member of parliament and member of the Future party.
“Saad knew he was sacrificing his reputation and political backing in order to keep the country from entering a state of war between Sunnis and Shiites similar to Syria or Yemen,” Allouch told Fanack. Saad’s final sacrifice was his personal role in politics, he said.
Bahaa’s political debut
Despite the fact that Saad failed to meet many of his many political promises, he maintained the sympathies of several backers. Something his brother Bahaa has yet to achieve.
“People are not going to simply forget the 15-year long tribunal of his father’s death nor the May 7, 2008 clashes when armed Hezbollah supporters seized western Beirut. Bahaa has not been with us through any of these,” Ali Khatib, a Saad supporter and long-time member of the Future movement party, told Fanack.
Like his brother, Bahaa is a Saudi-Lebanese national whose business interests include real estate developments in Jordan and Lebanon. Although previously he had not been interested in participating in the local political scene, he has, since 2020, been making way for his eventual entry, particularly since the Beirut blast.
“It was the Beirut explosion. I just couldn’t sit down and do nothing,” he told The National.
Currently, he is the man behind Sawa Li Lubnan (Together for Lebanon), a budding political party that declared in November 2021 that it will run a cross-sectarian list in the upcoming elections.
Nevertheless, some experts do not view Bahaa as a skilled political contender.
“Bahaa is using the same old political tactics, clientelism, money spending, patronage, and relying on his family’s legacy. We’ve yet to see anything different from the way his precedents operated,” Bitar explained.
As for the people, actions speak louder than words.
“Bahaa is definitely smarter than Saad but he’s still seen as a stranger within the community. He has not mixed with the people yet nor has he offered any of the social services his father once did,” Kamel, the retired businessman, lamented.
Recent reports have revealed that Bahaa has contributed to “Baytna Baytak,” an NGO that played a vital part following the August 4 blast. Although he came with money, experts debate the extent of his financial influence on the people.
“The Lebanese are not products you can just buy and even if people take your money, this doesn’t guarantee you support,” Michael Young, senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Fanack.
“The businessman had adopted a pro-revolution attitude, following the October 17 protests, all while continuing his father’s journey. He should leave his father’s legacy out of this. If he truly cared, he could’ve chimed in when Oger went bankrupt or when his father’s newspaper and TV channel closed down. He’s just taking advantage of the gap left in Sunni politics right before the elections,” Khatib said.
“Remote control politics”
The elections in Lebanon will take place in four months.
Lara and Nouh do not intend to vote because they do not think it will bring about necessary changes.
New Sunni candidates can now enter the electoral fray. Saad’s supporters, on the other hand, do not feel he could be replaced. Not by his brother, at least.
“The field is open for him to come and talk to the people, so he can feel their pains and suffering. Maybe he can even lend a helping hand, if he has the patience to do so,” Former MP and Vice-President of the Future Movement Mustapha Allouch said.
Although Bahaa adopted a strong stance against Hezbollah, which appeals to the Sunni street, this is still not enough, according to his critics.
Since his father’s passing 17 years ago, Bahaa has been largely absent. The reason being “security concerns over his own life as the country has seen several assassinations before.”
“He wants to have his cake and eat it too. You can’t play politics by remote control. Either you’re in the country dealing with people, engaging in political compromises, or don’t waste your time,” Young said.
Bahaa’s impact on regional ties, particularly with Saudi Arabia, is now uncertain. Young, on the other hand, believes the Kingdom has lost interest in Lebanon.
As a result, the Sunni community is unsure about their future in parliament. According to Young, if second-tier Sunni politicians, such as the four past prime ministers, do not participate in elections, it will result in a “de facto Sunni boycott.”