Maha Yahya is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. She has been following the protests in Lebanon closely in the past two weeks, and sat for an interview with Diwan on the day that Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri decided to step down. She spoke about the causes of his resignation as well as prospects for what lies ahead as a new government is formed. She also discussed Hezbollah’s role in the recent protests and what options the party now has.
Michael Young: Why did Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resign after initially refusing to do so?
Maha Yahya: Hariri was left with little choice. He was under considerable pressure from protestors to resign, while his political partners in the national unity government wanted him to stay, but on their terms. These terms included a refusal to approve a cabinet reshuffle, a refusal to change the entire cabinet, and a willingness to use violence in the street, as happened hours before the prime minister’s resignation, when Hezbollah and Amal supporters attacked protestors in downtown Beirut and burned their tents. Hariri had already made it clear that he would resign should blood be shed. Meanwhile, political parties and Hariri’s former allies used the protests to settle domestic scores with their political foes.
Young: In light of this, what was the impact of his resignation?
Yahya: By resigning, Hariri turned the tables on both President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. He effectively broke Nasrallah’s word to protestors in two previous speeches when he affirmed that the government would not fall. Hariri also crossed Aoun’s red lines by forcing out of office, among others, Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son in law who is foreign minister. Antipathy toward Bassil was especially palpable among the protesters. All this opens the door for a new prime minister to form a government that does not include individuals objectionable to the protestors.
Young: What happens now that a new government is to be formed? What are the possible complications?
Yahya: Lebanon may enter into a period of instability. Hariri is head of a caretaker government with significantly diminished powers to address economic reform and the deep economic and financial crises that Lebanon is facing. Meanwhile, parliament must select a new prime minister, which requires a majority of votes among the parliamentary blocs. Given the makeup of the current parliament, it will be difficult to secure agreement among the various blocs on a candidate. However, with a looming financial and economic crisis, the blocs will need to move quickly to identify a candidate acceptable to them and to protestors on the street. The country simply cannot afford the time-consuming horse-trading that usually occurs when governments are formed. If there is an economic collapse and the Lebanese pound loses value, Lebanese citizens could see their incomes, pensions, and savings disappear. The fallout in terms of public anger could pale in comparison to what we’ve seen thus far.
Young: Are any names circulating to replace Hariri? How might things play out?
Yahya: Several options are on the table. One is that Hariri will be tasked with forming a government of technocrats. This is an unlikely scenario given his standoff with Bassil and Hezbollah, and is probably unacceptable to protestors. A second option may be to identify a candidate who is not a parliamentarian but who is acceptable to both the Sunni elite and other political parties. In any case, without the full support of Lebanon’s political class such a person and his or her government could be doomed. All ministries and state institutions are influenced by powerful politicians, who would be able to hinder the work of new government ministers in a multitude of ways.
One name making the rounds is Raya al-Hassan, the current interior minister and the first woman in the region to hold that post. She is part of Hariri’s parliamentary bloc but has not been tainted by corruption scandals. She is also from Tripoli, which saw the largest demonstrations. The question is could she or others with similar profiles enjoy widespread political support? More importantly in Hassan’s case, would protestors accept someone directly affiliated with the current political parties?
More critically, the biggest question revolves around Hezbollah’s choices. Will the party continue to hold on to Bassil and the current caretaker government at the expense of Lebanon’s stability? Yet if it were to do so, it would risk expanding the rift within the party’s own Shi‘a community, given that Hezbollah’s resistance to a change of government provoked considerable public anger, even among Shi‘a who supported the protest movement.
Young: Is there any possibility that violence may break out, as Hezbollah and its allies have already attacked protesters during the past two weeks?
Yahya: The prospect of violence has become more palpable than before. The attacks on peaceful protestors in downtown Beirut by Hezbollah and Amal followers indicated that the protest movement had become intolerable to them. This was not only because the protesters had named and shamed Shi‘a political leaders; it was also because both parties sought to silence dissent within their community and clamp down quickly on potential rifts that could undermine their standing in the country.
In Nasrallah’s speeches over the past two weeks, he depicted the popular demonstrations and public anger with the status quo as part of a conspiracy to undermine Hezbollah and its legitimacy. As such, he chose to perpetuate the status quo and a political order that has protected Hezbollah, a reaction that pro-Iran parties have also demonstrated in Iraq. The question is how far Hezbollah is willing to go in Lebanon. Until now the party has restricted itself to dispatching thugs to break up protests in Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Moving forward, Hezbollah has one of two choices. It can accept that the ground is shifting and that what has happened is not a conspiracy against the party, but a genuine groundswell of opposition to a system that had simply become intolerable. Here Hezbollah would endorse a new national salvation government and early elections as demanded by the protestors. Or, as is more likely, it will continue to adopt a reactionary position, in coordination with the Amal Movement and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which means that it will need to resort to even higher levels of force than what we’ve seen until now.
With the army continuing to protect the protestors, the question will be how far would Hezbollah be willing to go to prevent mobilization in the streets. And if the party is willing to use force, how will it deal with protests in predominantly Sunni Tripoli and Christian areas where it has a limited presence? The widespread and decentralized nature of the protests makes any effort to curtail them throughout Lebanon increasingly difficult. This is where the sectarian system comes into play. Any intervention by Hezbollah in non-Shi‘a areas can quickly lead to a sectarian conflict.