Lebanon's political class must capitalise on Hariri's newfound popularity

Lebanon's political class must capitalise on Hariri's newfound popularity
Comment: Rather than exacerbate sectarian rifts, the drama surrounding Lebanese PM Hariri's resignation has actually served to boost national harmony, writes Mona Alami.
4 min read
28 Nov, 2017
Hariri signalled on Wednesday night he may withdraw his resignation next week [Anadolu]
The regional escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Lebanon appears to have settled, at least for now. 

But the crisis has yielded unexpected results, with Lebanese citizens putting on a show of unity and unwillingness to be drawn into regional squabbles. Saad Hariri's increased popularity has opened a window of opportunity for the Lebanese political class to negotiate some sort of cosmetic national understanding, and avoid the regional maelstrom.

More than two weeks after his surprise resignation, PM Hariri announced he would suspend his decision after his return to Lebanon and talks with President Michel Aoun.

Hariri's decision calmed tensions in Lebanon, where information pertaining to assassination attempts targeting political figures - possibly by Israel - was confirmed by sources in the Lebanese army.

Yet Hariri's controversial move, in a country marred with political and religious divisions, did not exacerbate the sectarian rift. On the contrary, Sunnis, Shias and Christians united in their call for their prime minister's return, when it began to look as though he had been held against his will.

Likewise, President Aoun, Hariri's Future Movement and speaker of the house Nabih Berry, in an usual show of harmony all called for his immediate return. Even Iran-backed Hizballah, whose military arsenal is central to Lebanese political contention, appeared pleased to have Hariri back home. 

The Hariri crisis has shown that Lebanon is not willing to enter a new phase of open confrontation with Hizballah

In Tripoli, local sources told the author there were no plans to mobilise young people or attempt destabilisation, with the population worried about regional escalation. The Hariri crisis has shown that Lebanon is not willing to enter a new phase of open confrontation with Hizballah, which had marked the 2008 period when clashes between Sunnis and Shias followed Hizballah's takeover of Beirut.

Hariri's increased popularity and the gravity of the regional situation, should now push Lebanese politicians to reach a national understanding, and shield Lebanon from regional tensions. 

In recent years, Lebanon's sovereignty has increasingly become a tool in the hands of foreign powers. Iran has used its proxy Hizballah as an expeditionary force in Syria, with its advisers also deployed in Iraq and Yemen, leaving its home country, Lebanon increasingly exposed regionally.  

Hariri's resignation has shown that Riyadh can also call the shots when it wishes. The complacent Lebanese political class is more interested in stripping the state of its riches than running the country.

It remains unclear what the terms of Hariri's return are, but this week President Aoun kicked off a series of bilateral consultations with the country's political parties, that will tackle the security situation, the dissociation policy and ties with Arab states. 

Read more: Hariri accuses Lebanon's Hizballah of regional interference

Political leadership in Lebanon is a complicated balancing act, and in the last week, Hariri emphasised the importance of "disassociation" from regional power struggles and giving priority to Lebanon.

Chief commander Mohammad Ali Jafari from Iran's Revolutionary Guards recently said that disarming Lebanon's Hizballah was out of the question.

"Hezbollah must be armed to fight against the enemy of the Lebanese nation which is Israel. Naturally they should have the best weapons to protect Lebanon's security. This issue is non-negotiable," he stated.

At almost the same time, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman described Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the "new Hitler of the Middle East".

Lebanon's sovereignty has increasingly become a tool in the hands of foreign powers

The Lebanese political class should take recent events as a serious warning. In an op-ed for Hizballah's mouthpiece publication, Al Akhbar, Wafiq Qansouh brushed off the latest crisis, adding that "any talk of Hizballah's weapons was mere cosmetics". 

Hizballah should nonetheless think twice.

For Lebanon, regional escalation might be on pause - for now - but it will undoubtedly draw the country back into its downward spiral in the foreseeable future. 

Mona Alami a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations. 

Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff