The former leader stood down in the face of mass protests but his name is once again in the line up to take up the prime minister’s office.
Forty-two days after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, and two new prime minister nominations later, Hariri’s name has once again been raised as a candidate.
When Hariri stood down on Tuesday October 29, he said he was bowing to the will of the people. Protesters had been on the streets for just under two weeks, angry over the worst economic crisis in decades demanding an end to deep rooted corruption and the resignation of the government.
Only legitimately able to function with a prime minister in place, the government was forced into a position of caretaker and was struggling to replace Hariri. As per the constitution, the government is constructed along sectarian lines; the president is Christian, the speaker of the house Shia and the prime minister, Sunni. Yet, of course, they must also be accepted by a majority of politicians from across sects and parties.
Candidates are nominated to the post of president by MPs. So far, the names that have been put forward, are Mohammed Safadi and Samir Khatib, both wealthy businessmen. The most recent, Khatib, had the backing of Hariri’s Future Party as well as the parties in the March 8 bloc containing Amal, Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement.
But Khatib did not have the backing of the Sunni Muslim establishment itself, with the Grand Mufti Abdul Latif Derian, Lebanon’s senior Sunni, saying he would not support Khatib, but instead backed Saad Hariri, leaving the government in the same position it was six weeks ago.
It’s not only Sunni leaders that did not back the caretaker government’s new nominations, they have also been rejected on the streets. “They are tone deaf,” said Sami Serhan, a protester in Beirut. “But it’s normal for any ruling class not to be able to read the street and not to be able to perceive the point of view of the working class.” He expressed the frustration that many of the protesters seem to feel towards both the nominations, but also at the mention of Hariri again.
“I think they [the government] are not completely aware of the full situation, they are thinking they can manage to do exactly the same thing. They are not aware that the system is collapsing, not just the economic model, the whole corrupt confessional system. Hariri is playing [a game], like the others, like Amal, and Hezbollah, [so that he can come back] with different conditions,” said Activist with the National Observatory Against Corruption, Gilles Samaha. “Hariri is from the same political class we don’t want. Why would we accept him back?”
Like many of the protesters and activists, Samaha wants the radical structural change of Lebanon’s electoral system, which means moving away from the current sectarian-based political system.
“We have set a timeline: First a new [independent] government, second a new electoral law and third a new parliament, and that parliament will select a new president and a new chief of parliament. We want to replace them all, but we are not doing a military revolution. We want to do it by the constitution,” said Samaha.
But for this plan to be executed via the constitution, there needs to be a new prime minister in place to appoint a new government of independent officials. “We need people who have knowledge, the main issue is that they are independent, strong, not influenced by internal parties, that’s the first point [...] and the second point is [that they are] experts,” said Samaha. Many protesters describe this as a technocratic government, or an independent caretaker government.
Herein lies the problem. Activists like Samaha need a prime minister to move forward, as do the politicians, but they have very different ideas of who and why.
Many politicians believe the only candidate who can break the current impasse is Hariri. Popular on the international stage, Hariri has been able to legitimise a government that incorporates Hezbollah members, as well as secure international funding.
Hariri himself has said that he won’t return to government unless it is as the head of an independent government, as the protesters are demanding. Many of the other politicians don’t want a new government made up of independent experts though, they want to maintain their own positions.
Sami Atallah, Director at the Lebanese Centre for Political Studies, agrees with Samaha, that while Hariri says one thing publicly, his intention might be another: “This is the tug of war, or the battle, he has been wanting to come back under his own conditions[...] From the moment he resigned he thought that he could improve the balance of power around the table [of ministers], using the protests to serve that end. So to me, the resignation was him trying to improve his cards, using the protest as a pretext, so all the names that were proposed were a waste of time, he’s just trying to get a better deal.”
The last government was dominated by the March 8 bloc with the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal and Hezbollah, but Hariri wants to reset that balance towards his bloc, March 14. “The battle is not, in my opinion, on the name of who will be nominated for prime minister, but the battle is on the composition of the council of ministers,” said Atallah.
This means there is not just one, but two standoffs: one in the corridors of power between ministers vying for their seat at the table, and one on the streets, between the entire political elite and the protesters.
“They will come up with a formula, as they have done before. Often it takes many weeks or months, but this time around it is very, very different, the economic situation is collapsing, we are in a crisis, but they don’t seem to be too bothered [by it], as [much as] the political bickering and the power balance.
Will the street rise up if a deal is struck and we get Hariri and the same people? It really depends on the strength and the coherence of the protesters, they could go all out, or they could be diffused,” said Atallah, adding that these protests have been 15 years in the making as living standards have declined and politicians are not delivering.
On the street the consensus prevails; ‘kilon yani kilon’ or ‘all of them means all of them,’ one of the most popular chants of the protest movement that demands every member of the government stands down.
“There is time for radicalism now. It’s time to talk about the real issue; the working class versus the ruling class. Lebanon has chronic inequality and this needs to be addressed,” said Serhan. As the economic crisis worsens while the politicians focus on maintaining power, some people, like Serhan, will only settle for seismic changes.