One last chance for Hariri, and for Lebanon

Hariri enjoys excellent relationships throughout the international community and the Arab world, including with pivotal figures such as French Emmanuel President Macron

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon August 31, 2020.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon August 31, 2020.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

With Saad Hariri nominated for his fourth stint as Lebanon’s prime minister on the narrowest of parliamentary votes, many observers are commenting that this will be the final opportunity the nation will be willing to grant him. And not only the final chance for Hariri — but for Lebanon.

If he is to succeed this time around, Hariri must learn from the mistakes of his previous premiership, when he was forced into compromise after compromise by Hezbollah in their unceasing efforts to render Lebanon a broken and hollowed-out satellite state of Tehran, dragging the nation into the miserable, impoverished reality it finds itself in today.

Hariri insists on this being a technocratic government, and there must be no backsliding from that principle. This must be a government of national salvation, capable of securing a bailout from the IMF and other major donors; taking the necessary steps to restore the economy to a sound footing; ensuring that there are credible answers about the August port explosion; grappling with the coronavirus pandemic; and setting Lebanon on the path toward a new political system in which the most powerful 5 percent aren’t corruptly devouring the entire wealth of the remaining 95 percent. Beyond the financial exigencies, this must be about restoring Lebanon’s identity and sovereignty, enjoying relations on an equal footing with a multitude of foreign interlocutors, but beholden to nobody.

Some segments of the protest movement regard Hariri’s candidature as a betrayal. This is understandable. The vision of protesters for a radically different governing system is absolutely correct and they mustn’t lose sight of this goal. But the conditions simply don’t exist at present for such a leap of faith. They should see Hariri’s premiership as their opportunity for a genuine transition. Instead of opposing Hariri, they should pile intense pressure on him to fundamentally remodel Lebanon and jettison this corrupt, sectarian, self-consuming governing model.

Most of us detest everything that Hassan Nasrallah and President Michel Aoun stand for, but right now they aren’t going anywhere. The most immediate threat is wholesale collapse of Lebanon’s institutions and a slide into sectarian war, which based on past experience could require more than 15 blood-drenched years to emerge from. The current situation in Lebanon is unimaginably bleak, but we remember how much worse it can be.

Around Hariri’s candidature we have witnessed some of the most grotesque examples of scheming and political horse-trading among Maronite factional leaders: Gebran Bassil, Suleiman Frangieh, Samy Gemayel and Samir Geagea still narcissistically believe no higher objective exists than positioning themselves for the presidency. It’s a secret to nobody what Aoun and Bassil will have prioritized during talks with Hariri. These kleptocratic clans are relics of the civil war era, sharing responsibility for many of the darkest chapters of the country’s history. Given that they are poised to be swept away in the transformations engulfing Lebanon, can’t they infinitesimally redeem themselves by departing with a drop of dignity?

Hezbollah too recognizes that there are few credible alternatives to Hariri. But if they sabotage Hariri’s candidature with self-interested demands to retain their hold on key offices of state, then Hezbollah will also go down with this sinking ship. Hezbollah are certainly as aware as anybody of the volatile situation facing the broader region; if they don’t secure their Lebanese base, they will ultimately be blown away in the course of events. At the very least, Hariri’s appointment sidelines the complicit and hopeless caretaker administration of Hassan Diab, under whose watch Lebanese banks were emptied of funds and the economy plunged to new lows.

Hariri enjoys excellent relationships throughout the international community and the Arab world, including with pivotal figures such as French Emmanuel President Macron. This is the moment to call in this support, convince donors and diplomats that Lebanon is capable of saving and deserves to be saved, and set out a vision for what Lebanon can achieve when it puts this crisis behind it.

For Arab or Western decision-makers who may be reading this and were planning to wait until something better emerges in Beirut – Hariri is the best you are going to get at this moment. Everywhere I hear pessimism about his prospects, but such pessimism risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. This may be the final opportunity to salvage Lebanon. Please don’t have it on your conscience that you failed to take it. Indeed, it was Hariri who chaired the 2018 Paris donor conference; the promised funds, in excess of $11 billion, are still awaiting a competent administration that can be trusted to use them responsibly.

Where other politicians turned hiding their immense fortunes into an art form, Hariri has invited scrutiny of his account books. Indeed, he included himself within the protesters’ demand that “kullun yaani kullun” — all of them means all of them. He recognizes that he is potentially a transitional figure on borrowed time, and if his latest premiership fails there will be a host of mocking, blaming figures saying: “I told you so!” However, if Hariri succeeds against the odds, he will be equally deserving as his father to be included in the pantheon of great Lebanese statesmen.

When considering his path forward, more than once Hariri has told me that “I am a patient man.” Now is not the moment to be a patient man. We are about to lose our country. This is the moment for Hariri to reinvent himself as a revolutionary, steamrollering through radical change at breakneck speed. He arguably requires far more than the meager six months he has been allotted, particularly since he must achieve far more in this period than a succession of corrupt and clientelistic administrations achieved in the 40 years since the end of the civil war.

Ultimately, Hariri must succeed because failure is not an option. Failure now — when most households can’t feed themselves, amid a pandemic of unemployment, with the nation’s social fabric on a knife edge — would be too horrible to contemplate.

All patriotic Lebanese — Shiite, Christians, Druze and Sunnis alike — should be praying that Hariri succeeds, as if their lives depend on it. Because it may well be that their lives do depend on it!

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state
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