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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Hariri supporters hold out little hope for change

Prime minister's resignation seen as doing little to change deadlock with Hizbollah

A worker fixes a giant portrait of Lebanese politician Saad Hariri, who resigned as prime minister on November 4, to the side of a building in the southern city of Saida on November 18, 2017. Ali Hashisho / Reuters
A worker fixes a giant portrait of Lebanese politician Saad Hariri, who resigned as prime minister on November 4, to the side of a building in the southern city of Saida on November 18, 2017. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

Saad Hariri’s supporters have been unusually quiet amid the political tensions triggered by his sudden resignation as Lebanon's prime minister two weeks ago.

Their failure to stage the large rallies seen during past political crises may be partly to do with the government ban on demonstrations imposed earlier this year. Gatherings planned immediately after Mr Hariri announced his decision from Saudi Arabia were quickly cancelled by his Future Movement party.

But many of his supporters also seem pessimistic about the possibility that any of the issues that led to his resignation can be resolved.

In Saida, Mr Hariri’s hometown on the Mediterranean south of Beirut, people said they were resigned to continued political instability.

"With a prime minister, without a prime minister, it’s the same,” said a man selling fruit who declined to give his name.

Lebanon went nearly two years without a government before Mr Hariri was appointed last December following a detente between the Future Movement and Hizbollah, whose rivalry has largely determined the course of Lebanese politics over the past decade.

However, he does not enjoy the same popularity as his father, a former prime minister and a construction magnate who is credited with helping rebuild Lebanon after its civil war ended in 1990.

“His father did a lot for Lebanon,” said Umm Ahmed, the owner of a clothing store who said she supported Saad Hariri but that he lacked the same political acumen as his father. “Nobody can replace” Rafik Hariri.

It was the elder Hariri’s assassination - blamed by many Lebanese on the Syrian government and Hizbollah - that suddenly thrust his son into a position of political leadership.

“The father was better,” said Osama Zayat, a convenience store owner. “The son was new to politics.”

Nonetheless, Lebanon’s Sunni community lacks another obvious leader. There have been repeated calls from all political players for Mr Hariri to return from Saudi Arabia, where he remained after announcing his resignation.

Mr Hariri has repeatedly refuted claims that he was under house arrest in Riyadh. On Saturday he announced after meeting French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris that he would be present at Lebanon's independence day celebrations on Wednesday.

“Let’s wait and see if he comes back,” Mr Zayat said. “If he will come back, all Sunnis will vote for him. We want him to come back. There is no one else to replace him.”

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In Saida, both supporters and detractors of Mr Hariri agreed that Lebanon’s economic woes are just as pressing as its political crisis.

There have been fears the Saudi government could implement sanctions against Hizbollah that would affect Lebanon as a whole. The US government has also weighed strengthening its own sanctions against Hizbollah.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese work in Saudi Arabia, and remittances from those abroad are an important part of Lebanon’s economy. There is fear that

Saudi Arabia’s attempts to pressure Lebanese parties to confront Hizbollah could include kicking out Lebanese who work there.

“My relatives [working in Saudi] are afraid,” said Bilal Meesi, a barber in Saida.

Mr Meesi said he was behind Mr Hariri “200 per cent,” but criticised the Saudis, saying their power play had backfired. The Saudis have long been patrons of Lebanon’s Sunni community in much the same way Iran has supported Hizbollah, which is an almost entirely Shiite movement.

“We were always supportive of the Gulf,” he said. “So why does the Gulf want division in Lebanon?”

“We have a problem with Hizbollah,” Mr Meesi continued. “But we don’t want to fight with them. It’s not important they give up their weapons – we need Hizbollah because of Israel.”

In the capital, Haithem Bidawi, the owner of a cafe across the street from Beirut Arab University, where pro-Hariri and pro-Hizbollah gunmen clashed in 2007, said the current situation was "the same standoff as 10 years ago”.

At that time, political tensions centred around whether Hizbollah would be allowed enough representation in the government to exercise veto power over decisions, as well as its ability to operate independently of the government.

It has been widely suggested that Mr Hariri’s willingness to compromise with Hizbollah led the Saudis, who are seeking to stem Iran’s influence in Arab states, to attempt to replace him with someone who would take a harder line.

“I think it’s good he [was willing to compromise], but I’m not sure the Sunni street agrees,” Mr Bidawi said.

“The Sunni street has been quiet because we’re waiting to see what happens,” he added.

Some of Mr Hariri’s supporters expressed support for confronting Iran’s influence in Lebanon and the rest of the region while also criticising the Saudi government for interfering too dramatically in Lebanon.

“This is a bad step,” said a customer at Mr Bidawi’s cafe who asked not to be named. “It will not bring anything positive, and gives a bad impression of Saudi politics.”

The Saudi government has long been a backer of Lebanon’s Sunni community, and Mr Hariri holds a Saudi passport. His family resides in Riyadh, and from 2011 to 2014, Mr Hariri lived between Saudi and France in self-imposed exile.

Recently, however, Mr Hariri’s businesses in Saudi Arabia have experienced financial difficulties, including prolonged inability to pay employees.

Another man the cafe who asked to remain anonymous linked Mr Hariri’s financial problems to less enthusiastic support for him.

“Before, anyone waited for any sign to go down to the street,” the man said. “But Mr Hariri’s ability to be a patron has declined. He needs money.”

* Additional reporting by Reuters