Meet the Lebanese Press: the end of Hariri or of Harirism?

A man walks away from an area where clashes happened between Hariri supporters and the Lebanese army after the former prime minister lost his position when his government collapsed. (Matthew Cassel)

While all eyes are on the people’s revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, ongoing efforts to form a new government in Lebanon have garnered little media attention. But the collapse of the Hariri government in Lebanon was another major blow to US interests and the standing of its long-time Israeli and “moderate” Arab allies. It brought a possible end to a six-year-long period of a multi-pronged, US-led offensive on Hizballah and the Syrian regime under the pretext of avenging the 2005 assassination of Lebanese tycoon and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

The Hariri camp has all but exhausted its trump cards in the face of its Hizballah-led opponents. Israel’s all-out war in 2006 failed to disarm, let alone destroy, Hizballah. Following the war, the Hariri tribunal set up by the UN security council to ostensibly investigate Rafiq Hariri’s assassination became the foremost diplomatic weapon to undermine the resistance. But a series of scandals implicating Saad Hariri — Rafiq’s son who had been heading the coalition government — in the falsification or manipulation of witnesses was exposed through leaked taped conversations of tribunal interrogation sessions. Hariri’s regional allies have also been on the defensive. Saudi Arabia has lost much ground to Syria’s influence. Egypt’s Mubarak is now in no position to extend support. As for Washington, its lip-service support failed, as always, to materialize into something concrete. Locally, Hariri’s allies, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and several prominent Sunni figures such as newly-elected Prime Minister Najib Mikati, are deserting him. His only remaining ruse is sectarian incitement, something he tried to capitalize on by sending his supporters into the street but to little effect — at least for the moment.

Mikati’s task however remains fraught with difficulty. Mikati is the man of compromise and regional deal-making. Without full participation of all factions, the country will remain in crisis. The opposition has given him a bit of a free hand, but must have gotten assurances that he will end all Lebanese government and legal cooperation with the tribunal. That was the core cause of the crisis and anything less was hardly worth the risk. In the press, Al-Akhbar’s Khaled Saghiyeh weighs the extent of Hariri’s loss among his Sunni contingency and the likely foreign support for Mikati. As-Safir newspaper published a list of the alleged terms of a deal that was being brokered between the two camps by Syria and Saudi Arabia but which Hariri allegedly turned down at the very last minute under pressure from Washington. This further exposed Hariri’s willingness to barter the tribunal for other gains and his overbearing deference to Washington. Ibrahim al-Amin of Al-Akhbar draws some general conclusions about the implications of the crisis and An-Nahar surveys the reaction of different international and regional players to the formation of a new government.

Al-Akhbar, 26 January 2011, Khaled Saghiyeh, “The First Round”:

Yesterday, the street belonged to the Future Movement [of Saad Hariri]. They were not confronted by members of the opposition or supporters of the prime minister-designate Najib Mikati. Nevertheless, in his appearance on TV in the evening, the spectator Mikati emerged from both battles, that of the street and of consultation to form the government, victorious. Even though Saad Hariri proved that he has enough popular support to block the roads from the north to the south — and it is a popularity that no one doubts — Mikati succeeded in overcoming this difficult day, underscoring several points:

  • First, if the “Day of Wrath” was truly a day of anger, then the prime minister-designate should have understood that he may enter the government headquarters, but he will not be able to enter his house in the city of Tripoli [his hometown] ever again. But what actually happened was quite the opposite; it seemed that the capital of the north did not offer to the protest but its piazza. The protesters themselves came from outside of the city, from Diniyeh and Akkar specifically. And without the slightest hesitation, the two members of parliament, Ahmad Karameh and Mohammad al-Saffadi [both representing Tripoli], made their way to the Baabda [presidential] Palace to vote for their ally [Mikati].
  • Secondly, Mikati succeeded in appropriating Hariri’s image of moderation and calm that the latter always tried to play against Hizballah. The former prime minister has abandoned his [principled] refusal to resort to the streets, his contempt for burning tires and cutting off roads, as well as his commitment to appeal to institutions, forgetful of the [“civilizational”] reservation that supposedly characterizes and sustains Harirism. Just as the Resistance loses some of its credibility when marching through the alleys of Beirut, Harirism loses all its credibility when burning even a single tire in the street.
  • Thirdly, to this very moment not a single international condemnation has been issued against Mikati’s election as prime minister. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merely said, “We are watching what this new government is doing, and we will judge it accordingly.” The European Union only agreed with Mikati on the need “to seek consensus.” Saudi Arabia is silent. But the votes of some members of parliaments, and the self-nomination of Mikati, indicate, if nothing else, that the kingdom is not placing a veto on what is happening. It is still early to predict how the coming days will unfold in the Sunni community. But one thing is certain: Saad Hariri’s real setback is caused by last evening’s activities in the street, not in the Baabda Palace. His loss of position could be compensated. But if he loses himself, he will only serve his opponents.

As-Safir, 22 January 2011, “As-Safir publishes Hariri’s bargaining paper: All the power … For the tribunal!”:

The text of the paper that Jumblatt presented in his press conference [re: aborted Saudi Syrian deal]:

Demands made by Prime Minister Hariri:

    Withdrawing the file of false witnesses [of the international tribunal invoked by the opposition against pro-Hariri] from political debate

  • Annulment of the Syrian judicial warrants issued against members of Hariri camp in the false witnesses case.
  • The four generals (Jamil al-Sayyed, Ali al-Hajj, Mustafa Hamdan and Raymond Azar), who were released, must pledge to stop pursuing this case in Lebanon or abroad.
  • There can be no aggression, physical or rhetorical, on members of Prime Minister Hariri’s team, including judge Said Mirza, police chief Ashraf Rifi, and head of internal intelligence services Wissam al-Hasan.
  • Confiscating Palestinian arms outside the camps
  • Promoting the pro-Hariri intelligence branch [of the internal security forces] into a division.
  • Changing the voting system for leadership positions of the Internal Security (half + one instead of two-thirds as is the case now).
  • Submitting the 69 approved bills during the government of Prime Minister (Fuad) Sanioura to Parliament without oversight by the current government of Prime Minister Hariri.
  • Reaffirmation of the Taif Agreement.
  • Dealing with security zones (most likely in reference to areas controlled by Hizballah)

In return (i.e. what Saad Hariri vows to do):

  • Annulling the protocol of cooperation with the International Tribunal.
  • Ending [Lebanon’s] financial contribution to the Tribunal.
  • Withdrawing the Lebanese judges serving on the Tribunal.

Al-Akhbar, 24 January 2011, Ibrahim al-Amin, “Five conclusions drawn from the government’s Week of Pain”:

  • The first conclusion of the governmental “week of pain” is that Saad Hariri is no longer fit to assume the responsibilities of a prime minister. The man is no longer able to gain enough votes locally, and he needs the whole world’s support but to no avail. Even the current Sunni fanaticism does not mean a “Haririst” fanaticism. The Sunnis will declare the end of the shortest-lived empire in the history of Lebanese political dynasties [Harirism] the moment when a member of this community demonstrates his capability to assume leadership.
  • The second conclusion of this week is that the Saudis, sponsoring the March 14 coalition, have walked yet again into a minefield that exploded in their face. The Saudis repeated, yet again, their experience in Palestine that caused their alienation, their experience in Yemen where they held their breaths and received one blow after the other, their experience in Iraq that made them regionally powerless, and their confrontation with militant Islam that turned them into enemies. And here they are now exiting Lebanon, weak, humiliated, with no one able to lend them a helpful hand.
  • The third conclusion is that the current political trial has laid bare the local March 14 forces. The latter seemed devoid of all forms of initiative or strength, and are no more than an instrument waiting for protection and support from abroad.
  • The fourth conclusion is that Lebanon’s minority sects have come to represent the umbrella of any political rule. Confessionalism no longer provides immunity to anyone, and history and the tales of ancestors are no longer useful in creating heroes whose roles have forever ended.
  • The fifth conclusion is that absolutely no one, neither in the opposition nor in the March 14 camps, can claim the ability to reform the country, and change its ugly, sectarian face.
  • As for The last conclusion, whose results are not visible yet, it concerns Israel, the West and Arab conspirators. The central goal of striking the Resistance has become no more than an illusion, and this is [certainly] not the way to reach it. And the most one can expect is an acceleration of Israel’s preparations for a war that does not seem imminent.

An-Nahar, 26 January 2011, Samir Tueni reporting from Paris, Ali Barada reporting from New York, agencies; “Washington accuses Hizballah of using ‘intimidation and threats’ Paris ‘concerned about stability,’ and calls for restraint”:

  • Washington has repeatedly expressed that a Lebanese government dominated by Hizballah will affect the United States’ relations with Lebanon. Meanwhile Paris expressed its concern over the stability in Lebanon, called on all parties to maintain calm and restraint, and warned against any form of violence and intimidation. In a significant step, the president of the French National Assembly, Bernard Accoyer, postponed today’s planned visit to Syria.
  • In New York, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, expected that “any government” should “comply with the international obligations that Lebanon has taken upon itself,” stressing that the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon “should not be affected by any political developments.”
  • Asked about the French position regarding a Government led by Hizballah, [French Ministry Spokesperson Bernard Valero] stressed that “it is necessary to charter [the process of government formation], in the framework of the constitution and the Taif Agreement; and the free and sovereign choice of the Lebanese be reflected, away from any intervention and through dialogue.” He reminded the government of its international obligations, calling on “the new government to respect the international commitments that have been agreed upon, and especially in what concerns the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.” In this sense, French diplomacy appears to be in a critical position. On the one hand, France does not want to sour its relation with Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, France is sending messages to Damascus, but without fully breaking relations. The latest message took the form of the recent postponement of the visit of the President of the National Assembly to Damascus. Paris is still waiting to see where the formation of the new Lebanese Government will lead before taking a clear stance.
  • In Cairo the Secretary General of the League of Arab States, Amr Musa, expressed his concern over the escalations that manifested on the Lebanese streets, stressing the necessity to place the interest of Lebanon above any other consideration.

The introduction was written by Hicham Safieddine and the translation by Cynthia Issa. Hicham Safieddine is a Toronto-based researcher and journalist. Cynthia Issa is a Toronto-based researcher and translator.