What Hariri’s retirement means for Lebanon’s Sunnis
When Rafik al-Hariri debuted as Lebanon’s third post-civil war prime minister back in October 1992, he was inexperienced in local politics, and relatively young (age 48). He was already a household name, however, due to major philanthropic activities in Lebanon since the late 1970s and his instrumental role in orchestrating the Taif Accords of 1989, signed in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the country’s civil war. He had also served as an envoy for the Saudi royal family to Lebanon but was “new” to the political elite, having lived in Riyadh since 1965. Few guessed that he would become a major pillar of Lebanese politics, and the uncontested leader of the country’s Sunnis from 1992 until his assassination on 14 February 2005. He quickly learned the patron-client system of Middle East politics, and came to master it brilliantly, using his massive wealth to buy off both enemies and friends, whether in Lebanon and beyond. He dabbled with kings and world leaders, and used their trust to rebuild the war-torn country and attract international investment, rightfully earning the title “Mr. Lebanon.”
In 2005, his son and self-proclaimed heir Saad al-Hariri emerged to lead the Sunni community, serving as three-time prime minister until his sudden decision to withdraw from politics on 24 January. Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Latif Daryan, who speaks for the country’s Sunnis, described Hariri’s decision as “regrettable” while prominent Druze leader Walid Jumblatt commented saying that it leaves the nation “orphaned.” Hariri’s announcement can be attributed to many reasons, one of which is that he is no longer as financially capable as he used to be when entering politics seventeen years ago. Much of his wealth was spent on building a powerbase in Lebanon and bankrolling his father’s Future Movement, which he also inherited in 2005. In recent years, he has closed down his father’s media outlets, including Future TV and al-Mustaqbal newspaper, and last July, commented in a television interview saying: “I used to be a billionaire but I no longer am.”
Another reason is that he no longer enjoys support from Saudi Arabia, which for years, had relied on him as the sole Sunni leader of Lebanon. In recent years, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) has repeatedly refused to give him an audience, considering Hariri as being too weak to stand up to Hezbollah, which is Riyadh’s main concern in Lebanon at this stage. Although critical of the party and having previously accused its top command of assassinating of his father, he found himself forced to work with the Iran-backed party, which helped make him prime minister, first in 2009 and more recently in 2016. His most recent tenure was signed off by Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, where in exchange for making their ally Michel Aoun president, Hezbollah agreed for Hariri to return to the premiership. He was endorsed by Hezbollah yet again in 2020, but failed to come up with a suitable cabinet due to obstacles put forth by President Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. In explaining his decision to withdraw from politics, Hariri mentioned Hezbollah tutelage as a main reason.
Many are asking: what will be the fate of Lebanon’s Sunnis, now that Hariri has “retired.”
A handful of Sunni figures are eying the vacant helm of the Sunni community, left vacant by Hariri’s withdrawal. Prime on the list is Hariri’s elder brother, Bahaa, who is debuting in politics next March, through Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections. He personally won’t be running for office but has created a parliamentary list called “Sawa Li Beirut” which will be eying seats in the Lebanese capital. The Georgetown University-educated Bahaa al-Hariri had originally steered clear from politics in 2005, which enabled him to maintain and develop his share of the family inheritance from Rafik al-Hariri. According to Forbes, his net worth stood at $2 billion USD in 2021, which means that unlike his brother, he has plenty of funds to bankroll a political career. He is also acceptable to Saudi Arabia, given his tough stance on Hezbollah.
Other Sunnis have similar ambitions, but they either lack Bahaa al-Hariri’s financial acumen, or family name. This includes ex-security chief and former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who is also coming down hard on Hezbollah with the hope of attracting Saudi endorsement. He has no political following, however, is not scion of a political family like the Hariris, and happens to be a native of Tripoli, not Beirut. Rafik al-Hariri himself was not a Beiruti but built his legacy in Beirut, in different times and different circumstances. Hariri worked through the long-established poltical families of the Lebanese capital, allying himself with big names like the Yafis, Bayhums, and Itanis, something that Ashraf Rifi is incapable of doing today.
Another prominent name is Fouad Makhzoumi, a self-made tycoon who entered politics as an independent MP in 2018. He is a native of Beirut, with a powerbase that is expanding horizontally and vertically, due to his major philanthropy projects and the equally tough stance that he has taken on Hezbollah. On the very same day that Hariri announced his withdrawal from politics, Makhzoumi came out with a statement, saying that Hezbollah arms need to be confiscated because they were threatening the livelihood of the Lebanese people. Unlike Bahaa, who has lived his entire life in Saudi Arabia, Makhzoumi is based in Beirut and knows the ins-and-outs of the Lebanese system.
Within Hariri’s Future Movement, there are two names that can try to fill the void—but their chances of rising to pan-Sunni leadership are slim, to say the least. One is ex-Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora, a lifelong friend of Rafik al-Hariri and former mentor to Saad al-Hariri. But without the Hariris, he doesn’t have the money needed to become a national leader, nor the party apparatus. Additionally, at 78, he might be too old for the job and would never be accepted by Hezbollah, which came to blows with him during the Lebanon War of 2006, when he was accused of encouraging the Americans to continue the conflict, in order to crush Hezbollah’s arsenal. Hezbollah considers him as too close to the Americans and also accuses him of trying to dismantle its telecommunications network at Beirut International Airport, when serving as premier back in 2008. The second Future Movement figure is Nouhad Machnouk, (67), a former interior minister who undoubtedly has the ambition for leadership of Lebanese Sunnis, but is currently under legal persecution for a possible role in the 4 August 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut, which tore down half the city and killed over 220 innocents. He has been charged with “criminal negligence” that lead to the blast but has refused to be questioned by Judge Tarek Bitar—a technicality that simply cannot be overlooked. In light of Hariri’s decision not to run for parliament, both Machnouk and Siniora will also not be running for office as well. They owe their political existence to the Hariris and would have a hard time surviving without them.
Hezbollah’s Sunni allies
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, we have a wide assortment of Sunni figures who are members of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition. In 2018, they claimed to hold a bloc of 10 MPs in the Lebanese Parliament, which they said, entitled them to representation in the Cabinet of Ministers. Hezbollah tried promoting them as the “Sunni Opposition” to Hariri, claiming that while the Shiites had two parties representing them (being Amal and Hezbollah) then so should the Sunnis. Hariri flatly rejected their claim, however, famously positioning himself as the only “Father of Sunnis.” Their list of Hezbollah-backed Sunnis incudes ex-Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Murad, another tycoon, this time from the Bekka Valley, who is also a philanthropist. Allied with him is Faisal Karami, scion of a leading political family in Tripoli whose father Omar, uncle Rashid, and grandfather Abdul Hamid had all been prime ministers of Lebanon from the 1940s onwards. Third on that list is ex-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who served as premier between January 2020 and September 2021. It was during his tenure that the Beirut blast explosion took place in August 2020, leading to his forced resignation. He is neither member of a hereditary political family nor does he have a power base in Lebanon, relying solely on Hezbollah for his political past, and future (if any).
And finally, we have independents like ex-Prime Minister Tammam Salam, whose family sat the helm of Sunni politics in Lebanon from Ottoman times. His father had been a six-time prime minister of Lebanon and his grandfather had been MP in the Ottoman Parliament before World War I. Salam served as prime minister in 2014-2016 but is not running for upcoming parliamentary elections, and will likely stand at arms-length from senior political office, due to the economic collapse that the country is going through, along with the financial meltdown and the towering influence of Hezbollah, over which he has no control.
Left standing is Najib Mikati, the incumbent prime minister, who came to power last September, also with Hezbollah support. He is leader of the Tripoli-based Azm Party and is powerful, wealthy, and well connected throughout the Arab World. Neither Saudi Arabia minds working with him, and nor does Iran or the United States. In the upcoming weeks, these men will be competing for minds and hearts of the Lebanese Sunni community. To reach pan-community leadership, however, they need plenty of tools, which not all of them have. One is charisma, strengthened with support from regional powers and a political history to make them relevant to the country’s Sunnis. Second is solid and reasonable program to save the Sunni community (and Lebanon at large) from economic, political, and financial collapse. And more importantly is money to make that happen, which was key to Rafik al-Hariri’s success in the 1990s.
To date, the only figures who have all of the above are Fouad Makhzoumi and Najib Mikati, and to a lesser extent, Bahaa al-Hariri. Time will tell which of these figures will rise to the helm of Sunni politics in Lebanon, and fill in the vacuum left behind by Saad al-Hariri.
BY: Sami Moubayed