Last October 8, Lebanon’s leading Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri was invited by a prominent television talk show host, Marcel Ghanem, to appear on his program. At the time, parliamentary consultations were about to begin to determine who would be designated to form a new government. Ghanem’s main purpose was to see whether Hariri would be willing to replace Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose cabinet was governing in a caretaker capacity.
The expectation initially was that Hariri would say no, mainly because his main regional sponsor, Saudi Arabia, did not appear to want him to cover for what they regard as a Hezbollah-dominated order in Lebanon. However, Hariri not only said he would agree to being named prime minister, but that as the strongest Sunni politician in the country he was the natural candidate for the post, which is reserved for Sunnis in the Lebanese sectarian system.
However, there was also an understated message in Hariri’s remarks that evening. He was asked about his erstwhile political allies, the Maronite Christian politician Samir Geagea and the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, who had opposed Hariri repeatedly in previous months. Hariri responded with what was a subtle warning to Geagea and Joumblatt, who come from numerically smaller religious communities. If he, as a Sunni, came to an agreement with the two leading Shi‘a parties, Hezbollah and Amal, then the country’s other communal representatives could follow if they wanted to, but he would forge ahead, regardless, if they did not.
Not surprisingly, two days later Joumblatt, whose reactions are always a good barometer of the trends in Lebanese politics, rallied to Hariri, whom parliament tasked with forming a government on October 22. Joumblatt understood that Sunni-Shi‘a concord could leave communities like the Druze and the Maronites isolated.
While the government formation process has dragged on for months, Hariri has not reversed himself in wanting to base a new government on his partnership with the Shi‘a parties. Indeed, when Ghanem had probed whether a government reform program required to unlock foreign aid to Lebanon could work, Hariri had replied that this was the main question he had for Hezbollah. In other words, he was quite clearly appealing to the Shi‘a parties to side with him on his agenda.
Hariri’s approach rests on an ambiguity in his ties with the Saudis. While the prime minister-designate will never break with Riyadh, nor can he afford to do so, he has sought to widen his margin of maneuver. Doubtless he remembers his humiliation at Saudi hands in 2017, when he was reportedly held against his will in the kingdom. But his attitude today seems to be defined by a sense that the relationship would benefit both sides more if he were to push the envelope, as his father once did. Hariri also understands that if he remains out of office for too long, his value to the Saudis will evaporate completely, which will mean the end of his political career.
Nor have the Saudis given him any reason not to disregard their wishes, having cut him off politically in recent years. However, they also have never openly said that they oppose a Hariri-led government. Their ambassador’s line has been, privately, that Hariri, if he wants to lead a cabinet, must have a program. By telling Ghanem that his aim for a new government was implementation of the French economic reform plan for Lebanon proposed by President Emmanuel Macron last September, Hariri appeared to be fulfilling that condition.
Hariri also seems to enjoy significant domestic Sunni support these days, something facilitated by his ongoing struggles with President Michel Aoun and his son in law Gebran Bassil over the prime minister’s prerogatives in forming a government. By insisting that the president is an equal partner with the prime minister in this process, an interpretation many Sunnis strongly contest, Aoun has bolstered Hariri’s standing within his community. Paradoxically, then, Hariri is leaning on Sunni backing in order to facilitate a rapprochement with Hezbollah and Amal, parties that most Sunnis otherwise oppose.
Beyond that, what does Hariri’s yearning for a Sunni-Shi‘a partnership mean, and on what can it be based? A priority of the prime minister-designate is to isolate Bassil, who as a leading Maronite politician wants so succeed Aoun as president and who was the person most responsible for undermining Hariri’s last government. If he can do so, Hariri feels, he would be in a good position to help bring to office another Maronite, one with whom he has good relations, such as Suleiman Franjieh. Franjieh, presumably, would give Hariri more latitude to operate as he sees fit.
However, that assumption is based on two potential fallacies. The first is that a Franjieh in office, were he to be elected, would be like Franjieh out of office—friendly to Hariri and hostile to Bassil. Nothing guarantees that this is true. For example, if Franjieh were to push for better Lebanese relations with the Syrian regime, with which he has long been close, this could trap Hariri between the president’s preference and a Sunni electorate that views Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the personification of evil. What would Hariri do then?
A second fallacy may be to assume that Hariri can build a relationship with Franjieh that is stronger than Franjieh’s ties with Hezbollah. Even if Hezbollah seeks a better rapport with a broadly representative Sunni politician, its instinct will often be to back a constitutionally weaker president against the prime minister. Why? Because in Lebanon the cabinet is the executive authority, so putting pressure on the prime minister can mean shaping the government’s agenda.
Does this imply that Hariri should not seek to reinforce his ties with the Shi‘a parties? No, but it would be a mistake for him to assume that such a partnership would buy him more than some wiggling room in certain situations. Maybe that’s enough for Hariri. That’s because another implied message in his interview with Ghanem was that he was not so much committed, on principle, to implementing economic reform, as intent on introducing reforms to salvage the system and the political class’ stakes in it. That is precisely what Hezbollah wants, and is why it so opposed the popular uprising in October 2019.
Time will tell whether Hariri’s wager can succeed, or whether it will lead him down the same blind path it did in 2016, when he thought he could work with Aoun and Bassil. A new failure could leave the prime minister-designate on his own, with his credibility in tatters.