x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Communications from Saudi Arabia keep Lebanon's former PM 'politically afloat'

Saad Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, has all but disappeared from his nation's political scene and from the country itself.

Lebanon's former prime minister Saad Hariri waving at his supporters in front of a portrait of his slain father and former premier Rafiq Hariri during a 2009 rally in Beirut.
Lebanon's former prime minister Saad Hariri waving at his supporters in front of a portrait of his slain father and former premier Rafiq Hariri during a 2009 rally in Beirut.

BEIRUT // A year ago, Saad Hariri was Lebanon's prime minister, albeit one heading a divided and fractious cabinet.

Twelve months on, the son of the assassinated leader Rafiq Hariri has all but disappeared from Lebanon's political scene and from the country itself.

He left Lebanon in June for "security reasons", sources close to him say, and is in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, where he was born and where his family has strong ties.

After months on the political periphery, however, Mr Hariri has begun to re-engage with supporters, opponents and the simply curious - on the microblogging network Twitter.

"Well it's about time to make this more up close and personal," he wrote this month. "You will be hearing from me more often and I'll be around as much as I can."

Mr Hariri's government collapsed in January amid bickering over Lebanon's support for the special tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father. He took his Future Movement party and the other members of the March 14 alliance into opposition.

His last major public appearance was at an opposition rally in Beirut in March.

Some analysts have said his absence from the political scene has left his Future movement and the alliance floundering. Others even wonder if he is any longer relevant.

"The prolonged absence gave doubt to some of Hariri's followers on his ability to renew efforts to topple the government and bring March 14 back to power," said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University.

"The situation has not been comforting for followers of March 14 and has opened up all kinds of stories about why he's been away."

Whatever the reasons behind Mr Hariri's absence, his decision to take to Twitter to air his views seems to be paying off. He has more than 23,000 followers.

Another Lebanese politician and active Twitter user is the prime minister, Nejib Miqati, who has more than 7,400 followers. Mr Hariri's office says he has personally tweeted his several long sessions in recent days, taking questions and commenting on issues including those currently dominating local and regional politics.

Among Mr Hariri's comments was a pledge to return to Lebanon "sooner rather than later".

Sources close to the former prime minister say there is no confirmed date for his return.

Mr Hariri, 40, was thrust into the political spotlight with the killing of his father. Despite his absence, he remains popular and still leads the opposition.

His tweets have referred to "massacres" by the Syrian regime as it seeks to crush a protest movement and he has also challenged some of his political rivals.

Mr Hariri also indicated he would support Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, in a future presidential run.

Tweeting in English almost every night, Mr Hariri has responded to questions ranging from the serious to the personal - everything from his liking for Harley-Davidson motorcycles to his enthusiasm for scuba diving - revelations that have drawn scorn from opponents.

Nevertheless, some believe the lively exchanges with his Twitter followers may help Mr Hariri in the long run. Mr Salamey of the Lebanese American University believes the interaction is sending signals that he may be returning with "renewed energy".

"This is a modern approach to speaking to the youth in their language and breaking the mould of traditional politics," he said. "It can be much more powerful than traditional speeches."

Other analysts have downplayed these apparent moves to revive the former premier's political fortunes.

"Hariri is a virtual political leader," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "He just wants to remain politically afloat in the event that his fortunes change and he is called upon to be prime minister again - which is unlikely to happen in the near future."

zconstantine@thenational.ae