In the wake of former Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri's decision not to run for parliament, and his call for the Sunnis to boycott the elections, Saudi Arabia is angry – and worried the move will play into Hezbollah's hands.
In an exceptionally harsh article in the Saudi court-affiliated newspaper Al-Hayat, Saudi columnist Mohammed al-Saed describes al-Hariri as a traitor to Lebanon and the Sunni sector, and as someone who has become the prisoner of war of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
"Where is the Sa'ad whom Saudi Arabia cried for 17 years ago with the murder of his father Rafiq al-Hariri?" he wrote. "Where has that man gone, now that he's thrown himself into Iran's open arms?"
Al-Hariri is currently residing in the United Arab Emirates and has announced that he will return to Lebanon only after the elections, a move that has left the Sunni sector without representation or leadership. Concerns now abound that the “Sunni boycott” he calls for will only improve the fortunes of Hezbollah and its allies in the Michel Aoun-led Free Patriotic Movement.
A monumental election
These elections are crucial, and will have major implications as to whether Lebanon succeeds in extricating itself from the financial crisis that has rendered it bankrupt. The countries that have offered financial support, the International Monetary Fund and international financial institutions refuse to transfer another dollar into the country’s coffers until there is an elected, functioning government.
Such a government is necessary for implementing the legal and financial reforms that are a precondition for receipt of the roughly $11 billion in grants and loans pledged by international donors in 2018 for the purposes of boosting the country's economy. Many billions more could follow should the government display "political responsibility" – that is, if it uproots the inherent corruption that has sent Lebanon tumbling into the abyss for decades.
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The government would have to be legitimate. It would need to represent all of Lebanon's communities and be elected with high voter turnout. It would need to be a government that can negotiate with the international community and withstand public and political pressure – especially from the political and business elite, who fear that any change may harm the pipeline of grift that has pumped billions of dollars into their pockets.
It is doubtful whether such a government will manage to rise now after failing to do so for so long. And it will lose its legitimacy without significant Sunni participation. Al-Hariri's decision is poised to do just that.
This doesn't mean a government will have been formed any quicker if al-Harari did run. After all, the disputes that led him to resign in the first place still plague the government, and they will persist after the elections.
The problem is that, according to the constitution, the prime minister must be Sunni. Without a popularly elected Sunni leader, President Michel Aoun may turn to a Sunni with Hezbollah's support to form the current government – for instance, billionaire Najib Mikati, who heads the current transition government.
'All you have to do is support the homeland'
The country's Sunni leadership, most of whom oppose Hezbollah and President Aoun, are well aware of these considerations. Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has launched vigorous efforts to persuade the Sunnis to ignore al-Hariri’s call for a boycott and to participate in the elections.
Siniora, 79, is a wealthy man with businesses in the UAE who declared in March that he does not intend to run for president. While he was in tandem with al-Hariri for many years, both as a government minister and as prime minister, he now believes al-Hariri is wrong. He urges the Sunni sector to challenge Hezbollah, and not to let it dictate the composition and head of government.
In recent weeks Siniora has been traveling throughout Lebanon meeting local community leaders. Some accuse him of handing out envelopes of cash to mukhtars (village chiefs) and activists to buy votes.
Siniora headed the Lebanese government during the Second Lebanon War and adopted the United Nations resolution that ended said war in August 2006. That resolution stated, among other things, that Hezbollah must retreat from the border with Israel, and it tasked UN inspectors to ensure this would be implemented.
Siniora, like al-Hariri, has a longstanding score to settle with Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah. Both men incessantly demanded that the organization be disarmed, a demand that began under Rafiq al-Hariri’s term as Prime Minister.
In 2004, al-Hariri senior initiated with France a UN resolution that called on all foreign forces – meaning Syria – to leave Lebanon, and said all "Lebanese and non-Lebanese" militias should be disarmed. This resolution was ostensibly one of the main motivations for his assassination.
Now, Saudi Arabia is reminding Sa'ad al-Hariri of his debt to his father and to Lebanon: He must, at all costs, prevent Hezbollah’s takeover of parliament and the government.
“Your historic chance has come, although you do not deserve it,” al-Saed writes in his article. “All you have to do is support the homeland and the community you destroyed when you surrendered to Hezbollah before they say of you, 'Cry, Sa'ad, for the homeland you couldn't protect like a man.'"