x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Like father like son, the same dilemma

As the drums of war between Israel and Hizbollah beat louder, Saad Hariri faces his father's old problem: how to reconcile a vision of economic development with an agenda of national resistance.

The crowds that gathered yesterday in Martyrs' Square were large, though not in comparison with the numbers that the commemoration has drawn in previous years. They were also less enthusiastic, a reflection of the fortunes of the movement that emerged from Rafik Hariri's death.

There are many reasons for this downbeat mood. Half a decade after the prime minister's assassination, the identity of his killers is still unknown. A UN investigation has failed so far to name suspects and issue indictments. In fact, many Lebanese fear that the international community's rapprochement with Syria, the principal suspect, has compromised its work, a concern that UN officials have unsuccessfully tried to allay.

Furthermore, the influence of neighbouring Syria, once waning in the face of international pressure and a domestic backlash against 30 years of heavy-handed domination, has been resurrected by the political successes and strong-arming of its allies in Lebanon, notably the Shiite militia-cum-political party Hizbollah. The latter has managed to checkmate the anti-Syrian, pro-western coalition known as the March 14 movement and obtain a veto power over government decisions, thereby ensuring that Lebanon would return to the Syrian orbit.

Mr Hariri's son, Saad, is the head of the political majority and, as prime minister, nominally Lebanon's most powerful leader. His political strength, however, has been tried by shifting regional power dynamics and domestic politicking that has sometimes turned violent. The weakening of US influence in the region and the lower priority given by the Obama administration to Lebanon have benefited Syria, which now is positioning itself as a pivotal interlocutor on Lebanese, as well as Iraqi and Palestinian, affairs. Mr Hariri's Saudi patron has also initiated a rapprochement with Damascus that required him to drop his anti-Syrian posturing and visit Damascus late last year.

Mr Hariri's coalition is also proving fragile. His Druze ally, Walid Jumblatt, the formerly outspoken anti-Syrian and anti-Hizbollah leader, is quickly changing tack. He is rebuilding ties with Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, and is reported to be smoothing the way for a visit to Damascus that is being cast as an act of repentance. Mr Jumblatt's defection remains ambiguous because he insists that his political alliance with Mr Hariri will survive, but it has had the net effect of demoralising other factions within the March 14 movement, including its sizeable Christian component.

These political difficulties are partly a reflection of Lebanon's Byzantine sectarian workings. Mr Hariri presides over a cabinet of "national unity", but factional and confessional divisions can be politically debilitating. His room for manoeuvring is worryingly similar to that of his father. He is in control of the country's economic policy, but his authority over foreign and security issues suffers, perhaps irremediably, from the existence of Hizbollah as an armed organisation that does not answer to the state and from the support and guidance it gets from Syria and Iran.

Like his father, Mr Hariri wants to make economic development and privatisation a priority, to attract investment and tourism, and to develop the property and financial sectors. This liberal agenda, however, is highly sensitive to political conditions and the likelihood of war. Mr Hariri faces the same conundrum as his father: how to reconcile a vision of economic development with an agenda of national resistance.

Although Rafik Hariri rebuilt much of Lebanon and put the country back on the world map, his achievements were not only tarnished by corruption and compromises, but remained hostage to dynamics beyond his control. Recently, the drums of war between Israel and Hizbollah have been louder, though both sides deny they are preparing for it. The escalation in rhetoric has forced Mr Hariri to speak tough on Israel and to profess solidarity with Hizbollah. Like his father, he finds himself in the unenviable position of governing a country always on the edge on war.


ehokayem@thenational.ae