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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Lebanon: A weakened Hariri faces full-blown dispute with pro-Hezbollah politician

Tensions further complicate prime minister’s task of forming a cabinet

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, speaks during a press conference. Behind him, a portrait of Rafiq Hariri who was killed in 2005. AP
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, speaks during a press conference. Behind him, a portrait of Rafiq Hariri who was killed in 2005. AP

Rising tensions between Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri, who is still struggling to form a cabinet more than six months after parliamentary elections, and a pro-Hezbollah politician threatened to spiral out of control over the weekend in Lebanon.

Hezbollah-backed Druze politician Wiam Wahhab warned of a “civil war” after an incident involving the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) led to the death of one of his supporters.

Tensions have been running high for weeks since Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia that also has close ties to the Syrian government, started insisting that a Sunni ally be given a cabinet portfolio.

Mr Hariri, who claims to represent Lebanon’s Sunni community, has repeatedly refused.

However, weakened by a relatively bad result in the May elections, he has not been able to push past Hezbollah’s demands.

This week, a leaked video of Mr Wahhab making obscene remarks about the Hariris, including late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, provoked outrage. Even though Mr Wahhab later apologised, a group of lawyers close to Saad Hariri filed a complaint against him for inciting “sectarian strife”.

Many believe that Hezbollah was behind Rafik’s murder in 2005 though the Iranian-backed movement denies this.

As a result of the complaint, the ISF were sent last Saturday to Mr Wahhab’s home in the village of Al Jahiliya to “bring him in” for questioning after he ignored several requests by the State Prosecutor, according to an ISF press release.

However, Mr Wahhab was nowhere to be found and, as the ISF left, his supporters opened fire.

One of them, Mohamed Abu Diab, was killed, but not by an ISF bullet, the press release stressed.

In a television interview on Saturday, Mr Wahhab accused the ISF of intimidation by sending “hundreds” of cars to Al Jahiliya to apprehend him.

“Saad Hariri gave the order, and it looks like judge (State Prosecutor) Samir Hamoud responded. I hold them both, as well as Othman, to be responsible for what happened”, he said, referring to Imad Othman, head of the ISF, considered to be close to Mr Hariri. “I will not go with Saad Hariri to civil war.”

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Mr Wahhab said he would file a complaint against all three officials but that he would also follow any decision Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, would take, Lebanese media reported.

Hezbollah has not yet taken a public stance on the dispute, though Mr Wahhab said it had intervened behind the scenes and thus avoided a “massacre”.

On Twitter, he promised to avenge death of his supporter Mohammad Abu Diab. “I promise you that your blood will be very heavy on the criminal triangle”, he tweeted menacingly, seemingly addressing Mr Diab in another reference to Mr Hariri, Mr Hamoud and Mr Othman. A travel ban has been imposed on Mr Wahhab.

The row is both over Druze leadership and about increasing pressure on Mr Hariri, according to Lebanese political analyst Imad Salamey. “Mr Wahhab is flexing his muscles and demonstrating his relevance.”

Earlier this week, several of Mr Wahhab’s supporters were arrested after driving up to Walid Joumblatt’s stronghold of Moukhtara, firing live bullets into the air.

Mr Joumblatt, who is the main Druze leader in Lebanon and no ally of Mr Wahhab, expressed public support for Mr Hariri. “The State did its duty,” he said on Saturday after meeting with the Prime Minister designate. Mr Joumblatt’s main rival, Talal Arslane, considered to be close to the Syrian government, rallied behind Mr Wahhab on Sunday.

As US sanctions against Hezbollah increase, this kind of incident also enables the party to display its powerful role in Lebanese politics to the international community.

“Hezbollah wants to show that they hold the fate of the country in their hands and that if the US continues to build pressure on them, they may lose the country completely,” Mr Salamey said.