When a car bomb detonated in the Christian quarter Ashrafieh in East Beirut I was only half a mile away. I heard the blast, saw the dark cloud and witnessed the destruction at Sassine square half an hour later. The target was not the Christian community but Wissam al-Hassan, a top security official and close aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Al-Hassan was connected to Hariri’s opposition movement March 14 and worked closely with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which investigates the murder of Saad’s father Rafiq in 2005. Four Hezbollah members have been indicted by the Netherlands-based tribunal.
In the weeks following the attack it became apparent that the biggest damage to the Lebanese opposition is perhaps not the tragic loss of al-Hassan, but its failures to use the tragic event to gain more influence in domestic politics. Hariri, living in exile as he fears the same fate as his father, seems incapable of crafting a solid strategy to counter the growing influence of Hezbollah.
Two days after the murder, I attended the funeral in downtown Beirut. Approximately 25,000 supporters of the Lebanese opposition turned up in a desperate attempt to show their strength. Rumors were going around that Hariri returned. The atmosphere was defiant, as if March 14 was about to rule Lebanon again. The funeral, however, signaled the starting point of a range of serious mistakes by the opposition.
Instead of waving the Lebanese flag, the majority of mourners showed the colors of their respective political party: banners of the Sunni Future Movement, the Christian Lebanese Forces and Salafists were omnipresent. Flags of Gama’a al-Islamiyya, featuring on the American and European Union terrorism list, were more prominent than the national cedar tree.
In this respect, Hariri can learn a lot from Hezbollah in how to effectively organize a successful demonstration. Not only does the “Party of God” hold the capacity to mobilize larger numbers for minor incidents, such as a silly B-movie on the Prophet, they also know how to frame and position their marches. March 14 should have handed out Lebanese flags: a clear statement that their primary objective is national unity -- unlike their rivals Hezbollah who care more about Syrian and Iranian interest than the interest of Lebanon. This was their first major blunder.
Second, Hariri should work on controlling his inner circle, especially loose cannons like journalist Nadim Koteich. His vigorous speech after the funeral incited the mourners to storm government offices when he shouted angrily to the crowd: “whoever wants to bury Wissam al-Hasan and go home is free to do so, but there is someone in the Serail [The office of the Prime Minister, AB] who should be politically buried”.
Storming Serail and engaging in violent clashes with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) seriously damaged the image of March 14 at home and abroad. Instead of clashing with national symbols, such as the LAF, Hariri should work to support these institutions and make clear that it is his party, and his party only, that works on the future of an independent, democratic and stable Lebanon.
Third, Hariri should have accepted the offer of PM Najib Mikati to engage in a national dialogue. It is always better to be included in these talks than being frustrated on the sideline. If March 14 would have engaged with the government in direct negotiations, the West would undoubtedly voice its support for such a process. Instead of backing Hariri, the US and EU called for stability in Lebanon and, thus, de facto supported the Hezbollah-controlled government. Given the conflict in Syria, Western countries have no interest in escalation in Lebanon, even if it is at the expense of Hezbollah. Hariri’s decision to reject dialogue, therefore, proved to be an outright mistake.
Fourth, Hariri should realise that picking a fight with Walid Jumblatt is never a good idea. The Druze leader and notorious flip-flopper currently backs the government with three ministers, but could be persuaded to return to the March 14 alliance. Jumblatt is increasingly critical of the Assad-regime and, consequently, slowly drifting away from the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance. Instead of engaging with Jumblatt, several opposition leaders criticized him publicly and wasted a textbook opportunity to fragment the Hezbollah-dominated government.
Finally, March 14 should make an effort to control the Salafists in Lebanon. They feel empowered by the developments in Syria, where the gross of the Free Syrian Army consist of Sunni militias, and regularly take the streets proudly showing off their arsenal. As a result, street battles have erupted frequently: in the Northern city of Tripoli several dozen have been killed in the fighting between Sunnis and Alawites. And in the Southern town of Sidon sheikh Assir and his fan base regularly clash with Hezbollah-supporters. But they seem to overlook that Lebanon’s loose knit of Salafists is no match for Hezbollah’s well-trained military wing. Moreover, this development also seriously damages Hariri’s reputation as a national leader who can transcend sectarian politics. Unlike his father Rafiq, though, Saad is no “Mr. Lebanon” and his Western allies are increasingly starting to realise this.
Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah tends to ignore the provocations of sheikh Assir as he has his eyes set on more important targets: control over the government, frustrating the advancements of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and assisting the regime in Damascus in their desperate bid for survival. Unlike the opposition, Nasrallah does not allow minor issues to side-track his long-term objectives.
Now more than ever, it is imperative for Hariri to learn from his rival and position himself in a similar way as his father successfully managed to do in the past. The five major blunders mentioned above need to be corrected immediately and serve as important lessons. Only then, Hariri can halt the erosion of his leadership and work to counter the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Prime Minister Hariri, it is time to hire a new adviser.
Anno Bunnik is a freelance journalist and political analyst from the Netherlands. You can follow him on Twitter @Eurabist and his blog www.eurabist.com