Exclusive: Bahaa Hariri’s Sawa Li Lubnan to launch 2022 electoral list

Exclusive: Bahaa Hariri’s Sawa Li Lubnan to launch 2022 electoral list
Sawa Li Lubnan, a political organisation financed solely by Lebanese billionaire Bahaa Hariri, will present its own electoral list in the March 2022 Lebanese elections.
6 min read
09 November, 2021
Bahaa Hariri insisted he does not want to be prime minister, but said he was "more than happy" to show leadership [Getty]

Sawa Li Lubnan, a political organisation financed solely by Lebanese billionaire Bahaa Hariri, will present its own electoral list in the March 2022 Lebanese elections.

The organisation will support candidates who “believe in change” and present its own contenders in those electoral districts where it does not see any viable ones running.

Both will run under a “Sawa-backed list,” Said Sanadaki, the executive director of Sawa Li Lubnan, told The New Arab. He declined to name any specific candidates, saying that it was too early to do so.

Sawa, whose name means “Together for Lebanon,” was founded in May to “root out corruption and deliver economic prosperity.” Since its founding, it has mostly focused on charitable initiatives, such as food distribution and provision of mammograms.

The purpose of such aid programs is to provide services that should be provided by the state, Hariri told The New Arab.

“Electricity is not a favour, water is not a favour – this is something that has to be provided by the government. It’s not something you need to go to the clan leader [to get],” Hariri said.

The organisation, which has 10 offices across Lebanon and has its headquarters in Hariri’s old office in downtown Beirut, is well-funded. In recent weeks, over 1,400 billboards and signs have been erected along Lebanon’s major streets and highways sporting slogans such as “the future is in your hands.”

Both Hariri and Sanadaki declined to disclose the budget of Sawa, but Sanadaki said that they will pay “whatever it takes” to make the group’s efforts successful.

For the past year, Sawa has also been working with the CT Group, an Australian political consulting firm that has run political campaigns across the world, including in the UK and Australia. The CT Group has helped the group plan its strategy and form its organisational structure.

Sawa has positioned itself within the current of the 17 October revolution, when millions of Lebanese took to the streets in 2019 to demand an end to the country’s endemic corruption.

“We are not here to deal with those who are accommodating the current configuration, this is what led to the utter failure of Lebanon today. I want to end this sectarian design which doesn’t serve the people,” Hariri said.

Despite funding Sawa and hosting its headquarters in his office, Hariri denied that he is seeking any political office. “I have no intention of being prime minister – we are trying to promote a system, not a person,” he said.

He further added that he has recused himself from decision-making in Sawa, explaining that he has no say in which candidates the organisation throws its weight behind.

“There is nothing wrong with leadership. I don’t want to be it, but if I can show leadership, then fine, I am more than happy and willing to do it,” Hariri said.

Who is Bahaa al-Hariri?

Bahaa al-Hariri is the son of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in a 2005 Beirut bombing, and the older brother of three-time Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Since the assassination of Rafiq, there has been a division of labour between Saad and Bahaa, whereby the former handles the political legacy of their father and the latter handles his business empire.

After the 17 October revolution, Bahaa re-appeared on the political scene, criticising the entire political establishment, including his brother Saad. Since then, Bahaa has continued to be vocal in his criticism of the elite to which his brother belongs.

Despite belonging to the Hariri dynasty, which has dominated Lebanese politics on-and-off for the last 16 years, Bahaa is still something of a dark horse candidate. He has not visited in Lebanon for 11 years and spends most of his time between London and Paris.

“He has no background. He has a political appetite awakened by the failures of his brother and the total collapse that we have in Lebanon,” Sami Moubayed, a political analyst and historian who focuses on Syria, Lebanon and Iraq told The New Arab.

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Saad’s declining political fortunes also might have created an opening for his elder brother.

The failure of Saad to steer Lebanon out of its current and his inability to form a government has damaged his status as the unchallenged leader of Lebanon’s Sunni constituency.  

“Bahaa knows more than anyone else that his brother no longer has money to buy off loyalties. For a population that is suffering so much in a cash-strapped economy, he might be a breath of fresh air,” Moubayed said.

Calling Lebanon’s Sunni community the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” Bahaa said that the group must coalesce around one leadership. He added that Sawa is “comfortable” its positioning within the Sunni community.

“I am against sectarian[ism], but they have their share in power and you can’t ignore them,” he said.

Saad’s status as Riyadh’s man in Beirut is also a thing of the past, after he did not stand up to the powerful Shiite political movement, Hezbollah, to the extent that Saudi Arabia wanted. Though initially a staunch opponent of Hezbollah, Saad eventually softened his position in order to lead a government that included the Iran-backed militant group.

By contrast, Bahaa has been unabashed in his criticism of Hezbollah. He cited the recent Iraqi election, where pro-Iran groups performed poorly, as proof that the geopolitics of the region have shifted away from Iran’s favour.  

“Saudi Arabia is willing to engage with [Bahaa] because it is looking for alternatives to Saad,” Moubayed said.

Over the past month, Saudi Arabia and a host of other Gulf countries have recalled their ambassadors to Lebanon over statements made by Information Minister George Kordahi which expressed support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“The question is, has Saudi Arabia decided to completely distance itself from Lebanon, allowing the country to collapse? Or are they just distancing themselves waiting to find a suitable candidate on whom they can rely? Is this conditional upon finding a new Sunni ally?” Moubayed said.

Elections just five months away

Acknowledging that Sawa is “late to the game” for the 2022 elections, Sanadiki insisted that the political group has long-term aims in Lebanon beyond just the election. Hariri, for his part, said the election was the first of a thousand pages.

The next parliament elected is important though, as it will appoint the new president of Lebanon. “If [Bahaa Hariri] wants to have a say in the upcoming five years, he needs to be in parliament,” Moubayed explained.

Further, the 2022 elections are the first to be held since the October revolution. The outcome of the coming elections will determine if Lebanon’s traditional sectarian political parties still maintain a grip on the country, despite the ongoing collapse of its economic and political system.