Saad Hariri is Not the Answer to Lebanon’s Problems
Lebanon has reached an impasse. For decades, the sectarian interests of a few have dictated the political, economic, and cultural life of the country. Ordinary Lebanese people, the lifeblood of the nation, have repeatedly demanded change and they have repeatedly been ignored by a political elite unwilling to enact the will of the people they claim to serve. The intransigence of this small cabal who dominate politics has been on full display over the past week as they nominated Saad Hariri for a fourth term as prime minister.
Saad Hariri is not the prime minister the people of Lebanon want or need. He is not a reformer. His appointment is merely window dressing and will change absolutely nothing. His nomination is the final nail in the coffin of the political elites who despite everything they have done to destabilise Lebanon, remain solely focused on maintaining their tenuous grip on power.
Saad Hariri was last prime minister just one year ago – until he was forced from power by ordinary citizens demanding an end to corruption. Protestors, fed up with his ineffective and corrupt leadership and his alliance with Hezbollah, demanded change. His appointment now is not just an insult to the October Revolution protest movement, still demanding an end to political corruption, but it serves as a bitter reminder of the influence Hezbollah retains over the political process and the corrupting effect of sectarian politics.
The Port of Beirut explosion should have been a catalyst for change. It could have been the wake-up call the political class needed to finally end the sectarian settlement that has enabled Hezbollah to corrupt the political process. To the credit of President Macron, he almost succeeded in forcing change by linking aid to the formation of a truly technocratic, non-sectarian government – there was a glimmer of real reform.
However, true to form, and even with much-needed aid on the line, Hezbollah and their sectarian allies gamed the system. They stopped Mustapha Adib, the former prime minister, from appointing a finance minister to his cabinet because his nomination was not allied to their faction. That single move killed off any chance of much needed international aid. It proved just how crucial constitutional reform is if Lebanon is to have any chance of having a credible government capable of addressing its growing list of problems.
Hezbollah came close to losing influence over the political process and therefore it is hardly surprising that Saad Hariri has now been appointed. Despite belonging to the Sunni faction, he has always been a political ally of the Shia group. Hezbollah’s power and influence grew dramatically during his three previous terms as prime minister because they have been able to exploit his weak leadership.
It’s an open secret that Saad Hariri has been reliant on Hezbollah’s patronage to maintain his grip on power. Unfortunately for the Lebanese people, this reliance and Hezbollah’s corrupting influence has only gotten worse. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party lost a third of its seats. The sole reason he was able to form a cabinet was because of Hezbollah’s support.
Such support comes with significant strings attached. In 2019 when Lebanon’s economy first started suffering the effects of epic mismanagement and endemic corruption, Saad Hariri was tasked with implementing financial reforms that could have addressed its growing fiscal deficit. Such reforms would have been devastating to Hezbollah and their Shia allies in the Amal party who – under the sectarian settlement – control the finance ministry. As such, they said no. Saad Hariri caved, and one year later, Lebanon is all but bankrupt.
Given the current U.S. administration’s hard-line approach to Hezbollah, the group’s reliance on its allies is only likely to increase. In recent months former government ministers, businesses, and Hezbollah’s own leadership have been targeted by U.S. sanctions. There is now a price to pay for supporting Hezbollah, but the group’s influence is not going to disappear overnight. Hezbollah is ingrained in the political process and is part of the government.
Which is why Lebanon’s political system is fundamentally broken. It needs a complete rethink, and it must be a ruthless and swift clearout of the current sectarian settlement. For too long, sectarian interests have trumped the welfare and prosperity of Lebanon. The political establishment has demonstrated a total disregard for the Lebanese people, the same people that they claim to represent. Saad Hariri is not the prime minister to institute such reforms. He is part of the problem and is a beneficiary of the current settlement.
What Lebanon needs is an outsider. It requires a prime minister free from the sectarian constraints that are currently holding it back. Unfortunately, such a leader will only succeed with support from the international community. World leaders must follow President Macron’s lead and make aid conditional on political reform. Furthermore, the U.S. has shown how sanctions can be used to limit the influence of Hezbollah. The next president could do more and should start by encouraging other Western nations to institute their own sanctions. Only then can Lebanon hope to rebuild.