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Lebanese crisis back to square one

With popular rejection of prime ministerial nominee Mohamed Safadi, Saad Al-Hariri appears poised to return to power, but with conditions, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi

Hassan Al-Qishawi , Tuesday 19 Nov 2019
Lebanese  crisis  back  to square  one
Lebanese protesters use cables to bring down security barriers along a road leading to the parliament headquarters in Beirut (photo: AFP)
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The crisis in Lebanon is back to square one after protesters rejected MP Mohamed Safadi’s nomination as prime minister. But why did the Lebanese street reject him and was his nomination a manoeuvre to achieve another goal? No one envies Safadi and what happened to him over three days. Lebanese demonstrators flocked onto the streets to protest his nomination, even in his home base Tripoli.

In the beginning, it appeared that Safadi’s nomination was approved by the main political powers, including the Future Movement. After demonstrators rejected him, the mood changed and Safadi was attacked by the non-sectarian protesters and the Sunni sect as well. As soon as news circulated that Safadi was chosen as the next prime minister, social media blew up with tweets by Lebanese activists rejecting him, and perpetuating the slogan of the Lebanese protests: “All of them, means all of them.” Activists questioned whether his nomination was anything more than a political manoeuvre.

Was it a ploy by Saad Al-Hariri or a real attempt to resolve the crisis? Nobody knows yet what the goal of nominating Safadi was. Did Al-Hariri know beforehand that Safadi would be rejected, opening the way to his return to power with a stronger hand? Or was it an attempt by Lebanese politicians to settle the crisis through an old formula.

At first, it was said that Al-Hariri wanted Safadi at the helm of executive power with the “Shia duo” Amal and Hizbullah, especially since he was also supported by President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Safadi asked Al-Hariri to issue a statement openly supporting him. Al-Hariri did not, and only confirmed his verbal promise in front of Safadi and other parties. 

Although Safadi’s rejection by the street was expected and normal because protesters want to overthrow the old guard, the refusal was compounded by Basil’s statements that Safadi’s nomination was his idea, talking about the procedures of commissioning Safadi as if he were the president. For protesters, Bassil is the pariah of the system and his removal from power is a clear and constant demand by activists.

Media reports said that Al-Hariri intentionally leaked Safadi’s nomination as a “test balloon” for the street, which immediately rejected the suggestion. This was followed by a meeting of former prime ministers who issued a statement rejecting any nominee other than Al-Hariri. Although Al-Hariri seemed to agree to Safadi’s nomination in the beginning, former prime ministers Tamam Salam, Najib Miqati and Fouad Al-Siniora denied reports they agreed to Safadi’s nomination. Siniora is a leading figure in the Future Movement, Salam is a key ally of Al-Hariri and Miqati wants to remain in Al-Hariri’s good books despite their rivalry out of fear of being accused of dividing ranks.

Now that Safadi is out of the picture, it is difficult for Al-Hariri to find another Sunni nominee for prime minister. And the leader of the Future Movement continues to receive a torrent of support for his return to power and to forge ahead amid a swamp of financial and economic challenges.

 

AL-HARIRI’S PRECONDITION: Al-Hariri insists on the demand of protesters to form a fully technocratic cabinet, while President Aoun, Hizbullah and Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri want half of the cabinet seats to be filled by politicians and the other half by technocrats. Sources close to Al-Hariri say he is adamant about a technocratic government if he is to accept the nomination, but Lebanese media quoted cabinet sources as saying that discussions are underway with Al-Hariri about a previous suggestion that the four key ministries — defence, interior, foreign and finance — would be political appointees.

Former MP and Future Movement figure Mustafa Alloush said in a television interview: “During a meeting with representatives from Hizbullah and Amal on Thursday, the head of the caretaker government, Saad Al-Hariri, insisted on a technocratic cabinet without politicians.”

THE ECONOMY PAYS THE PRICE: Dark days are ahead if forming a cabinet is delayed further as Lebanon is on the threshold of collapse. It is no surprise that Berri insists on having Al-Hariri as prime minister to navigate the current sensitive and potentially explosive situation. Berri likens the condition of the Lebanese people to the passengers of the Titanic as it gradually sank into the ocean. If immediate action is not taken, everyone will drown. 

Miqati told Al-Hariri as much in statements of support: “We will destroy everything in our path if you insist on not returning to power.”

Political observers believe Bassil’s policy towards Al-Hariri and upholding several decisions by the ousted cabinet, as well as Al-Hariri’s tolerance of Bassil, caused the Free Patriotic Movement to take over the reins and major decisions. Al-Hariri could not stand by and watch his political environment collapse around him, so he resigned amid loud protests that dominated the political scene. Al-Hariri’s supporters believe there is no alternative to his nomination as the country heads towards economic chaos.

Al-Hariri’s return to power remains a possibility; in fact, it is most likely. But the composition of the cabinet remains disputable: technocrats or politicians? It is a serious dilemma because politicians want to maintain their grip on power, especially the March 14 alliance. More importantly, Hizbullah believes that if it is not included with its usual quota of two cabinet ministers, then it is being elbowed out of power due to a decision by the global community.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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