Who will fill Saad Hariri's void in Lebanon?
Leader of the Sunni-majority Future Movement party and former prime minister Saad Hariri announced on 24 January that he will not run in upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2022 and is withdrawing from Lebanese politics.
In a TV speech, a red-eyed Hariri, speaking behind a portrait of his father, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, said he had decided to suspend all of his roles in political life.
"I am convinced that there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, international disarray, national division, sectarianism, and the collapse of the state," he said. "We will continue to serve our people, but our decision is to suspend any role in power, politics and parliament," he added.
Following Hariri's announcement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati described the decision as "a sad page for the country and him personally".
The leading Druze politician and President of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt told Reuters the decision "means a free hand for Hezbollah and the Iranians".
"Hariri as a political figure will be difficult to replace, with the Sunni political community becoming ever more fragmented"
Following his withdrawal from political life, Saad's brother, Bahaa Hariri, announced in a video-recorded message on 28 January that he would join a battle "to take back the country" and follow in his father's footsteps. He won’t reportedly run in the elections, although he will back electoral lists across Lebanon.
Hariri’s withdrawal from politics will leave a difficult void to fill. Analysts say there is a lack of influential leaders in the Sunni community in Lebanon, a country governed by a delicate sectarian power-sharing system.
Hariri was thrust onto the political scene in 2005 following the assassination of his father and twice Lebanon's prime minister Rafik Hariri. His death sparked the Cedar Revolution, a series of popular protests which led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country.
Saad Hariri led the Future Movement as part of the 14 March Alliance, a coalition that embraced the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party, and other sectarian and independent parties to oppose Hezbollah and Syrian interference in Lebanon.
Inheriting a dysfunctional state and a deteriorating economy, he served as prime minister from 2009. In January 2011, Hariri's 8 March Alliance rivals resigned as a whole, in protest against his government's support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), an international investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination.
Following the election of Michel Aoun, founder of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Maronite Christian party, as President of Lebanon, Hariri was appointed as prime minister for the second time in December 2016. But 11 months later, he tendered his resignation from the cabinet via a TV speech from Saudi Arabia.
Although he refused to talk about the circumstances, it later emerged that he had been held hostage in Saudi Arabia and was rescued by French diplomatic intervention.
Hariri would lead the cabinet again after his resignation was suspended. But in 2020, he resigned following a series of anti-government protests known as the 17 October Revolution, which began in 2019, triggered by an unprecedented economic crisis, political instability, and endemic corruption in the public sector.
Hariri attempted to become prime minister for the third time when Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who succeeded him, resigned following the explosion at the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020, which destroyed a significant part of the city and killed more than 200 people. However, after more than a year, Hariri had failed to form a government, later announced by PM-designate Najib Mikati.
His exit from politics was an accumulation of a long series of mistakes. Hariri doesn’t want to completely disappear from the political scene but has temporarily suspended his political activity as the most prominent Sunni leader, according to Lebanese political analyst Bachar El-Halabi.
"Hariri has committed a series of mistakes. Although he had some success between 2005 and 2009, he was never able to translate them into a real political gain," he told The New Arab.
A series of events led to Hariri's political decline. Lebanon's 2008 conflict between pro-government Sunnis (including Hariri's Future Movement) and Hezbollah and its allies, the nomination of Aoun as president(which gave Hezbollah the upper hand), the events in Saudi Arabia in 2017, and the current political and economic situation in the country, all contributed to weakening him.
But with Hariri gone, and an absent force in upcoming elections, the Sunni political community now faces a vacuum.
Lina Khatib, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, told The New Arab that Hariri's decision saves his party from the likely scenario of significant losses in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
"As the Future Movement was projected only to win a handful of seats in the 2022 elections, the expected number of Future Movement MPs in the next parliament would not have been enough to form a significant parliamentary bloc," she said.
Hezbollah would likely be the first to benefit from Hariri stepping down, El-Halabi explained.
However, the Shia movement also took advantage of Hariri when he was in power, using him to deflect responsibility away from the group for the decline of the Lebanese state and concurrent disasters.
But beyond Hezbollah, El-Halabi thinks that Sunni political figures aligned with the Syrian regime will also benefit from Hariri’s withdrawal, including Hassan Mourad (former minister of state for foreign trade), Faisal Karami (Minister of Youth and Sports), Kassem Hachem (MP), and Walid Sukkarieh (MP).
"What we are seeing is a coordination of different Sunni figures that have some sort of legitimacy in the community and have track records in Lebanese politics"
In short, Hariri’s decision was good news for his rivals, Lina Khatib explained. The absence of parliamentary representation for the Future Movement would likely allow more Sunni MPs allied with Hezbollah to occupy this space.
Hariri's departure from politics could also be an opportunity for Lebanon's rising independent political parties to gain more seats in the next parliament, she added.
However, Hariri as a political figure will be difficult to replace, with the Sunni political community becoming ever more fragmented. Following Hariri's announcement, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan, the spiritual leader of Lebanese Muslims, described his withdrawal as "regrettable" and "painful."
He also expressed his concern over developments in Lebanon, calling for "further Islamic and national unity".
Grand Mufti Daryan is trying to bring together significant figures within the Sunni political scene and former prime ministers, unofficially known as the Prime Ministers' club. He aims to coordinate and cooperate with them to ensure that the void is filled, building a post-Hariri roadmap.
However, El-Halabi argues that no Sunni political figure is likely to replace Hariri, despite his many mistakes. "Hariri continues to retain the upper hand in terms of representation and legitimacy," he said.
Local leaders that the Future Movement used to mobilise the community are also expected to have a role in renovating the Sunni political landscape. "What we are seeing is a coordination of different Sunni figures that have some sort of legitimacy in the community and have track records in Lebanese politics," El-Halabi said.
While former prime ministers, such as Mikati or Fouad Siniora, are unlikely to fill the void, they may work together in upcoming elections.
"No one has Hariri's popularity, although the sentiment has changed following the 17th October Revolution Movement," he said.
Hariri's turbulent career was built on his father's political inheritance, with Rafik Hariri deeply admired within the Sunni community and beyond. But now, Hariri's void, political uncertainty, and economic meltdown could lead part of the Sunni vote towards non-traditional parties, especially if they propose a compelling political alternative with new figures and ideas.
Following Hariri's decision, President Aoun met Grand Mufti Daryan and said he doesn't want the Sunni sect to leave politics in Lebanon, referring to speculation that top Sunni figures might join Hariri in suspending their political activities.
"We will definitely not call for a Sunni boycott for the good of the community, and whoever wants to run should run, and the elections are taking place on the scheduled date," L'Orient Today reported.
"With Hariri gone, and an absent force in upcoming elections, the Sunni political community now faces a vacuum"
Aoun understands that the lack of representation from the Sunni bloc in upcoming elections could leave Christian parties alone to face Hezbollah, El-Halabi explained. Such a scenario is best avoided for Aoun, who was propelled to the presidency by Hezbollah’s support.
Furthermore, if tensions increase between Christian and Shia parties, the ensuing political conflict could harm Aoun's tenure and benefit his rival Samir Geagea, the president of the Lebanese Forces.
The latter is Saudi Arabia's ally in Lebanon and is expected to receive Saudi help in the upcoming elections as the Kingdom looks to back leaders that take an anti-Hezbollah stance.
Hezbollah still dominates the Lebanese political scene, and Iran has the upper hand over Saudi Arabia, El-Halabi says. But Hariri's withdrawal from the political arena could also give Riyadh more room for manoeuvre to challenge Hezbollah.
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi