What Does Saad Hariri’s Appointment Mean for Lebanon?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Lebanon’s three-time prime minister, Saad Hariri, has been tapped again to lead efforts for the creation of a new cabinet. Mr. Hariri, forced to resign almost a year ago following massive street protests, represents, for some, perhaps the last chance for pushing through painful but necessary economic and political reforms demanded by the protesters and the international community. His appointment, however, has met with widespread disappointment among the protesters and many regional observers remain skeptical about his ability to step outside the shadow of the established business interests, and more important, to take a course which may put him at odds with Hezbollah and Iran.

Mr. Hariri is the country’s third prime minister in one year. Hazem Saghieh, in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, notes that the difficulty of successfully carrying out the basic task of the creation of a government that enjoys the support of the parliament and of the voters, underlines the Kafkaesque reality that is Lebanese politics: “Infinite adjectives and expressions of bewilderment and intrigue have ensued from Saad Hariri’s designation to form a new Lebanese government, especially regarding his ability to do so, some addressing it positively and others putting it in a negative context…. Designating somebody to form a government, then, is more akin to the paranormal and magical than to the political. For arriving at a government pressed with patching up the economic collapse and other suffocating crises has become beyond the capacities of mortals…. These same powers are not ready, without doing the undoable, to reach to an internal agreement among the ‘brethren,’ one that would slightly limit, or slightly delay their ability to economically and politically gnaw at what remains of the state and society, as well devouring what the others cannot gulp up.”

The shock of Hariri’s (re)appointment aside, the question in everyone’s mind now is whether Saad Hariri can deliver, or as The National’s Raghida Dergham puts it, can he toe the line between the demands of the international community and Tehran, while avoiding the anger of the protesters: “Saad Hariri, who was re-designated Prime Minister of Lebanon on Thursday, seems to have the tacit backing of a variety of local, regional and international actors. This means that, in return for the chance to form a government, he will inevitably expose himself to pressures from all those actors, including France, Iran and the US. Chief among them, of course, is the Iranian regime, which seeks to consolidate its interests in the country…. One doesn’t doubt Mr Hariri’s ability to include ‘fresh faces’ in his upcoming cabinet, as his Iranian backers will understand his need to portray himself as a reformer. But he will struggle to enact much-needed economic and political reforms, given how beholden he and his fellow ministers will be to vested interests in Beirut and Tehran.”

In an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Hanin Ghaddar argues that on this question it is doubtful that Mr. Hariri has the political strength to face down demands by Lebanon’s entrenched political interests, and as a result, the most likely outcome is that the newly designated prime minister will do little to stamp out corruption, despite paying lip service to doing so: “The main question today is whether Hariri can deliver or not. All indications say that Hariri – being the preferred candidate of the political class, including Hezbollah – will not work against the interests of this elite and their corrupt channels. Hezbollah and its allies would not have supported his premiership if they did not have guarantees that he would protect their interests. It would be very hard to imagine that Hariri would fight the corruption of those who supported him, or stop Hezbollah’s access to the state institutions and border crossings.”

Reporting on the developments in Lebanon, and in particular on the question of where Mr. Hariri’s allegiances lie, Al Jazeera’s Timour Azhari cites Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, according to whom “it is unlikely Hariri – a major shareholder in one of Lebanon’s biggest banks himself – will have the interests of average people as his top priority. ‘For whom will he be working and serving? I think he will serve in particular the banks and richer segments of society and the political parties’, Atallah told Al Jazeera. Atallah also sees little reason to expect Hariri to have more success implementing much-needed reforms than he did in previous governments, even as establishment parties have lost support in the past year and have fewer spoils to share among themselves. ‘It’s a system preserving itself even as it becomes more and more broken and unstable’, he said.”

Supporters of the Iranian government appear to have welcomed Hariri’s appointment and seem to be emboldened by it. For Batool Subeiti, the return to the scene of Mr. Hariri and the failure of the international community to push out Hezbollah from the Lebanese political scene, reconfirms what he describes in a Tehran Times op-ed as the shifting regional balance of power: “Macron came with demands, as though France will once again be victorious in shaping Lebanon’s system of governance…. Indeed, Macron has yet to fathom we are in an era and context that differs from France’s colonial ancestry- for the balance of powers in the whole region has changed immensely in the past decade, let alone a century…. Macron is oblivious to the fact that the resistance in Lebanon, on the ground of reality is original and pure, stemming from the roots of the land with all its strength- it is a liberation movement that is real, has its independence, thought, ideals and is of perpetual nature, unlike the past. Here, the word against real action has no value, and Macron has nothing to offer but empty talk and emotions.”

Mr. Subeiti’s characterization of the popular resistance in Lebanon, however, is very different from that of the street protesters, many of whom are fed up with Lebanon’s entrenched political and economic interests and see no immediate way out. Much of that frustration, adds Dania Koleilat Khatib, an affiliated scholar at the American University of Beirut, in a recent op-ed for Arab News, results from the fact that as protesters see it, “all of the country’s powers, including the presidency and parliament, are today in the hands of the same political class. This means any new government will have to comply with the sectarian and corrupt formula. So far, the political elite does not seem to have bowed to any international or popular pressure. The only solution is for civil society to get organized and prepare a new leadership that will base its political agenda on the concept of accountability…. The Lebanese see with their own eyes that change is not possible with the current political elite, they have no choice but to prepare themselves for the next battle: The parliamentary elections of 2022.”

Given the state of Lebanon’s economy, one wonders whether the country can wait another two years before the next elections. According to a recent analysis by Nasser Saidi, a former Lebanese economy minister and first vice-governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, published by The National, the immediacy of the need for change is made evident by a “long list of overlapping and connected problems – fiscal, debt, banking, currency and balance of payments crises – that together have created an economic depression and a humanitarian crisis…. A comprehensive IMF programme that includes structural reforms is necessary. It is the way to restore trust in the economy and win back the trust of the private sector, the Lebanese diaspora, foreign investors and aid providers. This would then attract funding from international financial institutions and Cedre Conference participants, including the EU and the GCC. Such measures, if properly executed, would translate into financing for reconstruction and access to liquidity. They would also stabilize and revive private sector economic activity. Without the immediate implementation of these comprehensive reforms, Lebanon is heading for a lost decade.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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