Hariri positioning himself for a come back to remove ‘new’ Hezbollah president?

There simply isn’t time left to experiment further with the Hezbollah-Aoun ruse. Heads need to roll.

Lebanon, a country once stigmatized as the Switzerland of the Middle East, could do with a few political hacks from Bern to show its leaders how to build a non-confessional federal state.

For the moment though, it will have to deal with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation after a tumultuous two weeks of anti-government protests from thousands of Lebanese who are calling for a radical overhaul of a system which collapsed under its own weight of warlords who have looted the state coffers for decades and simply don’t even know what governance – even poor governance – is, in any shape or form.

Hariri’s resignation could mean a new anti-corruption agenda installing itself within the political institutions – whether he comes back as PM with his own hand-picked cabinet, or is dispatched to the darkness of opposition.

It could also mean just a rearrangement of the window dressing to keep the old guard in place.

The call from protesters to install a new government cabinet of technocrats who are not part of the political elite will have to be heeded; the question is whether it will be done properly or disingenuously. Your technocrats or mine?

The problem Lebanon has is that while many want change, few, if any, are able to provide any lucid vision of what that might entail.

Consequently, this places even more emphasis on political figures. It’s unlikely that a new European style of democratic apparatus will permeate the Lebanese government. What is more likely is that the old system will stay in place, but a genuine crackdown on corruption – which is seen to work – will be forced to take root.

The fundamental difference of opinion is thus. Hariri plus two other groups (socialist Druze and ultra Christian conservative ‘Lebanese Forces’) all believe this should be done through installing an entirely new cabinet of technocrats, based on their individual merit. The opposition to that plan, from Aoun and Hezbollah, is that this can be done from within the existing political framework, with less fuss.

Anti-government protesters block a main highway
Anti-government protesters in Beirut hold an Arabic banner that reads: "We want a government from outside the state with legislative powers, No to delays"

Hezbollah is keen not to let the country descend into chaos but also invested heavily in the Aoun-Hariri power sharing model which kicked off on October 31st 2016. In short, it fears that the Hariri plan would ultimately lead to an entirely new breed of MPs which would erode its support base.

Indeed, the baying crowds need to see an entirely new approach to governance and responsibility of office. For the moment, this has put a spotlight on key figures as their resignation is seen to be a swift and clean antidote to decades of embezzlement and greed.

The house speaker, for example, Nabih Berri, has been in the job since 1992 and so entire generations of Lebanese know no other. But even his own supporters are tired of his rapacious embezzlement of state funds and running the south of Lebanon almost like a mafia chief, according to a leaked US cable.

Aoun himself, also profited from the ‘wasta’ (kinship) corruption system, and is from a different age which no Lebanese understands or align themselves to. His background is military and he is hated for running the country along the same lines as any clueless dictator, taking his lead from Hezbollah and showing a vociferous disdain for anything whiffing of democratic reform.

And how can you trust a man who lies about his age, to have the best interests of the country at heart, let alone the economy?

Hariri’s original proposals, which were accepted, fall short of the mark on saving the economy also. One has to question how serious he was about banking transparency of the elite or a new anti corruption agency, when, in fact, he agreed at least to close down the previous one – a farcical set up of a minister and a fax machine in downtown Beirut run by an Aoun supporting minister who is considered part of the elite.

What Hariri does see though is the removal from office of key figures which are universally loathed for their personal aggrandizement – both financially and politically – and his resignation was based on this.

Close sources tell Newsweek of a visit Hariri paid to Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, on the day of his resignation where he demanded that the president’s son in law, Gebran Bassil, be removed from his post as foreign minister.

Bassil is despised by protesters and is seen as a personification of greed and graft – who was actually made a minister by his father in law, President Michel Aoun – through the corrupt political system, based on tribalism and kinship.  But worse, the odious Bassil - recently reported in Lebanon for taking boxes of cash from Iran, disguised as Red Cross aid parcels – is being groomed by Hezbollah to inherit the presidency from Aoun. He’s actually seen as Assad’s man in Beirut.

For many Lebanese, even those not interested in confessional politics, this is what is at stake: Aoun’s presidency, tainted by journalists and protesters being beaten up and jailed and corruption reaching new levels, has made Lebanon more or less a tin-pot African dictatorship, complete with succession of heirs, no power nor water, a garbage crisis, a local currency losing its value and a new level of lawlessness taking root.

Even Aoun’s own daughters are enraged by Bassil becoming President and want him kicked out, believing their father’s legacy had been stained. And Bassil also became the focal point of particularly vitriolic chants from the protesters.

And so, for Hariri, it was clear that a quick and decisive way to quell the protesters’ anger, would be to do some culling. The removal of Bassil is key, he believes, to moving forward.

Hezbollah has resisted this though as indeed has Aoun. And getting Berri to step down as House Speaker will also be difficult. The sheer pusillanimity of these characters is what is fundamentally wrecking the Lebanese economy as is their idea that it is the poor who should pay for their call-centre governance with a Whatsapp tax, which is what ignited the protests on October 17.

A caretaker government with Hariri still acting as PM is the most likely of scenarios in the short term, while Hezbollah, Aoun, Berri and Bassil all try and manipulate MPs to vote for the status quo with a new Sunni PM, possibly Raya al-Hassan, the current minister of interior who is from Tripoli and has no stained record of graft.

If they however go for a Hariri come back, then this will be seen as a survival ticket for themselves – as it will mean Bassil leaving the cabinet and the protesters’ fevered demands for early parliamentary elections possibly cooling.

To re-elect Hariri, which is not at all a far-fetched scenario – will almost be the starter’s pistol on a revolution, one which will be keenly watched both by wobbly Gulf Arab rulers in the region and even as far as Algeria and Morocco.

The problem is there is not time for such previous standoffs which have left Lebanon without a government. There simply isn’t time left to experiment further with the Hezbollah-Aoun ruse. Heads need to roll.

Martin Jay is an award-winning British journalist previously based in Beirut, Lebanon. His career has included working for CNN, Euronews, The Sunday Times, BBC, DW, TRT, RT, Al Jazeera and Reuters. He currently lives in Morocco, where he is a correspondent for the Daily Mail. He can be followed on @MartinRJay.