Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri delivers a speech in Beirut on January 24, 2022.
Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri Image Credit: Reuters

Last month, former prime minister Saad Al Hariri came to Beirut for the nineteenth anniversary of his father’s assassination, on 14 February 2024. This has been a reoccurring theme since Hariri withdrew from politics in January 2022. What’s new was the immense outpouring that people showed him upon his return. Thousands turned up to show their support although the man has been out of office for almost five years and lacks the means to control the streets like he used to.

Some did it because they genuinely love him. Others came out for lack of any Sunni alternative. Since his surprise retirement, the Sunni community of Lebanon has been powerless, and feel very vulnerable.

Many were upset with Hariri for having walked out on them. Former employees were furious for being laid off from the Hariri family media empire that was shut down in phases over the past decade, claiming that he still owed them outstanding payments. But all came out to greet him, nonetheless.

A giant hole in Sunni politics

Many were in need of a Sunni leader to follow, given that although many have tried, none have succeeded in filling his shoes. Among those who tried were his elder brother Bahaa, who failed at even creating a tiny bloc in parliament, and ex-prime minister Fouad Al Siniora, a former protégé of the Hariri family, now regarded as a troublesome defector.

Hariri’s withdrawal from politics left a giant hole in Sunni politics, which manifested itself in the parliamentary elections of May 2022. Hariri had called on his supporters to refrain from voting or participating in those elections, which resulted in a lopsided chamber that for the first time in history, lacked a unified Sunni bloc.

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To put that in perspective, Hariri’s parliamentary bloc stood at 36 out of 128-seats in 2009. In 2018, they won a total of 29-seats, putting them second to Gibran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which got 29-seats. The FPM still commands a bloc of 20 MPs, but Hariri’s bloc is down to zero.

Currently, the lion’s share of parliamentary seats is divided squarely between the two Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, and the two Christian parties, the Lebanese Forces (LF) and FPM. With no Sunni bloc to challenge them, Lebanese Sunnis find themselves excluded from any serious discussions on who will fill the presidential seat at Baabda Palace, left vacant since ex-president Michel Aoun’s term ended in October 2022.

Preventing Sunni radicalisation

Hariri’s return was surrounded with plenty of speculation that he was going to announce a political comeback, which did not happen, although when speaking to Al-Arabiyya he did say: “If I feel that the Sunnis of Lebanon are leaning towards radicalisation, I will interfere.”

He didn’t specify what kind of radicalisation he was referring to but it was clearly in reference to Hamas, which for months before the Gaza War, has been carving out a sphere of influence for itself in Lebanon. Only Hariri can stand up to such a project because any Christian objection to expanded Hamas influence in Lebanon runs the risk of only further radicalising impoverished Sunnis -- whether in Lebanese towns or the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps.

Speaking to Al Jadeed TV in 2021, he confessed saying: “I used to be a billionaire but I no longer am.” Much of that inherited wealth was spent on domestic politics after he decided to become his father’s political heir and successor, back in 2005.

What a Hariri comeback means for the Lebanese Presidency

Last month, reporters asked Hariri whether he planned to return to politics. He didn’t rule out the idea, but said that it might happen in due course. If he does return, then this will certainly be a turning point in the presidential crisis that has left Lebanon with no head of state for seventeen months.

Will he support the election of Hezbollah’s candidate Suleiman Frangieh, or at a bare minimum, not oppose it?

Hariri and Frangieh are good friends and they go a long way back. On three occasions, Frangieh had served as minister of health under Hariri’s father, and although the two men disagreed over Syria and Hezbollah, have managed to maintain a sound friendship.

On 14 February, Hariri hosted Frangieh for dinner at his home, and was quoted on the record saying: “Frangieh is my friend.” This will be warmly welcomed by Hezbollah, which was rather welcoming of Hariri in all its media outlets, ignoring the fact that when withdrawing from politics two years ago, Hariri had cited Hezbollah “tutelage” as a main reason for his retirement.

Until recently, the French had been toying with the idea of a swap deal for Lebanon between the presidency and premiership. In return for facilitating Frangieh’s election, French diplomats argued that he would appoint a pro-west premier.

This would be a win-win scenario, pleasing both Iran and the western community. That is what brought Michel Aoun to Baabda Palace in back 2016, when in return for being accommodated with the presidency, Hezbollah agreed to make Saad Al Hariri his premier.

France’s original candidate for premier today had been Nawwaf Salam, a prominent judge and scion of a leading Sunni family. Hezbollah had rejected him, however, on accounts of being too close to the Americans. His name is no longer on the table, however, after he was elected president of the International Court of Justice last month. With no other serious candidate for premier other than the incumbent Najib Mikati, Hariri would be the man to serve as Frangieh’s premier.

Although he doesn’t command a parliament bloc, he still has the power to sway anywhere between 15-20 MPs into voting for Frangieh, who already has 51 votes. That would secure the 65-vote majority that Frangieh needs to become president, and in return, restore Hariri to the Grand Serail of Beirut.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of the best-seller Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.