x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Lebanon's Sunnis split by Saad Hariri-Nijab Miqati feud

Miqati's defection from Hariri's political camp and his replacing Hariri as prime minister is forcing people who once followed both men comfortably to choose their camps.

BEIRUT // A political feud between the Hizbollah-backed prime minster-designate, Nijab Miqati, and the recently deposed pro-western prime minister Saad Hariri is splitting Lebanon's Sunnis, recently the country's most powerful sect.

Mr Hariri lost his seat as prime minister, a position guaranteed to Sunnis in Lebanon's confessional political system, when the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition toppled the government on January 12. The government collapse was over a disagreement concerning an international tribunal investigating the assassination in 2005 of Mr Hariri's father, the then prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Since leaks suggested that Hizbollah would be indicted in the murder of Rafiq Hariri, the Shiite party and militia has been adamant in trying to discredit the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Mr Hariri staunchly stands by the tribunal, making his reappointment as prime minister of the new government unacceptable for Hizbollah and its allies. Enter Najib Miqati, an affluent Tripoli-based Sunni MP, allied with Mr Hariri's bloc, but who defected to become the Hizbollah nominee for prime minister, and garnering enough votes in parliament to supplant Mr Hariri, the Sunni choice.

Mohammed Ahmad, 54, the owner of the Future Cafe in the Sunni neighbourhood of Aaycha Bakkar, a Hariri stronghold, said: "The fact that Hizbollah can appoint someone who is Sunni to occupy the most important Sunni position in not acceptable." His cafe is a shrine to Hariri father and son. Its name - Future Cafe - is named after the Hariri political party and its interior is plastered with portraits of both statesmen. The cafe's flat screen television is tuned to Future TV, the Hariri-owned television channel in Lebanon.

Abdel Menaam Jalid, 50, who was playing cards with a friend in Future Cafe, said: "For this chair [of prime minister], a brother can hate his brother. It's time for Hariri to understand that he is no longer enough to speak only the language of peace."

Mr Hariri's recent call for calm among Sunnis came after two days of rioting across Lebanon last week, after the fall of the government and the election of Mr Miqati, the nominee of the Shiite-lead Hizbollah alliance.

Mr Miqati's supporters, especially in Beirut, are careful about proclaiming their position. Regardless, Mr Miqati's defection from Mr Hariri's political camp and ascendence to replace Mr Hariri as prime minister is forcing people who once followed both men comfortably to choose their camps.

"In Lebanon, loyalties are flexible," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "People can move from one end of the continuum to the other with impunity."

"[Hariri] is a loser," said Nahi, 27, a waiter in the working-class Beirut neighbourhood of Basta, who declined to provide his surname, for fear of retribution from partisans of Mr Hariri. "He didn't know how to play the [political] game. He was a pawn," he added, referring to Mr Hariri's various capitulations, over the past year, to Syria, which he once accused of killing his father.

The developing Sunni split is along class and geographical lines. Mr Hariri's followers are from the Hariri family stronghold in the southern city of Saida and among working class Sunnis in the capital, whereas Mr Miqati's appeal centres on Sunnis in his political base in the northern city of Tripoli and among a growing number of middle-class Sunnis in Beirut.

"If the arrival of Miqati can de-block [the political impasse], then why not give him a chance," says Amer, 33, a Sunni from Tripoli, who declined to cite his full name. Amer remains a supporter of Mr Hariri. He benefitted from a four-year university scholarship from the Hariri Foundation, the Hariri family's philanthropic arm, but he says the current political situation makes Mr Miqati a better Sunni to back, in the name of stability. He is also keen, like many other Sunnis in Tripoli, to see one of their representatives in the highest Sunni office in the country.

"Miqati did lots for Tripoli when he was far from power," he said, referring to the billionaire's philanthropy, which rivals that of Mr Hariri. "Now that he's in power, he can do so much more. It's very important for me as a Tripoli Sunni. Tripoli was neglected for too long."

While a gulf is opening up between Sunnis over the direction Lebanon is to take and under whose leadership, both sides agree on one thing - the current schism is not good for Sunni Lebanon. Once the preeminent sect on the country, its is weakening and is being surpassed the the burgeoning political might of Shiite Hizbollah and its allies.

Professor Khashan said: "The Sunnis were weakened right after the [2005] assassination of Rafiq Hariri. The Sunni position was weakened further by Hizbollah's performance in the July 2006 war. The Shiites have risen to the political forefront in Lebanon [and] until the issue of Hizbollah is dealt with by the regional powers, the Shiites will continue to be the ranking political community in Lebanon."