Amidst the electric talks which Saad Hariri initiated following his homecoming in Lebanon, the movement in general looks fishy. The news was that the ex-prime minister has changed his mind, once again, and is going to endorse General Michel Aoun, the founder and former president of the Free Patriotic Movement.
Hariri, a core member of the March 14 bloc, had nominated the head of Al Marada party Suleiman Franjieh for the presidential elections just last year. The move arose regardless of the objections of significant Future Movement members, whom Hariri leads, due to the candidate’s controversial history.
Before that Hariri had verbally promised Aoun, a member of the March 8 bloc, to endorse him for the elections; the support was never given officially back in 2014. Lebanese politics witnessed Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces Party and Saad Hariri’s ally, endorsing his Christian opponent for the presidency. Geagea’s decision was intended to solve the political deadlock but instead it intensified the Geagea-Hariri relationship.
Now Hariri has reinitiated presidential negotiations to solidify a consensus candidate to elect in the next parliamentary session at the end of October. The ex-prime minister has visited all members involved without releasing any official statement to explain his actions.
Lebanese history has proven that no presidential candidate stands without international support. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been the Hariri family’s caretaker and supporter ever since his Rafic Hariri, the former prime minister and Saad’s father, emerged as a powerful post-civil war political figure in the 1990s.
Recently, however, the relationship between Saad Hariri and Saudi Arabia has been lukewarm after Lebanon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and the President of the Free Patriotic Movement, abstained from voting on the Arab League resolution denouncing Iran. In reaction, Saudi Arabia cut off its financial support to Lebanon. Thus, all Future Movement-affiliated institutions, media outlets and events have suffered because Riyadh had been its number one backer. Following that, Hariri announced his return from Saudi Arabia, where he has lived for more than three years, to live in Beirut. Political figures from the March 14 bloc started flirting graciously with Saudi Arabia in the hope of regaining the kingdom’s trust and retaining economic ties.
On 13 September, an article by Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif in the New York Times went viral. Zarif completely shunned Riyadh’s assaults, political negotiations and terrorist funding. A week later, the NYT published an Op-ed — “Saad Hariri: Iran Must Stop Meddling in Arab Affairs” — in which the ex-prime minister praised and defended his Saudi sponsors. When the Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Adel Al-Toraifi visited Turkey at the end of September and signed a memorandum of cooperation and understanding in the cultural field, both entities agreed to increase expertise and artistes’ exchanges to foster cultural cooperation.
Lebanon used to be the ideal state for culture, tourism and economic cooperation. Saudi Arabia’s change in attitude emerged after the death of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in January last year. By the strengthening of Turkish-Saudi ties, Lebanon has lost its primary source of financial support. Furthermore, the country has lost its last sincere, caring regional power which pushed for political attention on the international level.
Saad Hariri has scheduled visits to Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia this week. His recent political mobilisation on the domestic level and distinct efforts internationally show his attention-seeking efforts to regain the kingdom’s trust. If his efforts succeed in ending the presidential vacuum, he will re-legitimise himself as a significant political player able to influence the various Lebanese political parties.
It is important to note that in the recent municipal elections, a former Future Movement member, Ashraf Rifi, emerged as an influential figure in the north Lebanon city of Tripoli and challenged Hariri. It is the country’s second largest city and is dominated by Sunnis; it is also known for being Hariri’s main foothold. Nevertheless, Rifi won the elections which reduced his ability to influence his previous backers.
Now Saad Hariri’s efforts serve to fix what has already been broken and save the last inch of his father’s political and economic legacy. Will it work? Maybe. It all depends on the obstacles that emerge between political adversaries to elect the longed-for state president. Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament and head of the Hezbollah-backed Amal Movement, has already vetoed any agreement that does not include the formation of a government and electoral law. He has called for a “full-package” deal to avoid any potential deadlock after presidential elections take place.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.