Saad Hariri-1576583771139
Saad Hariri's name is again cropping up as prime minister following an impasse after weeks of political wrangling in Lebanon Image Credit: Gulf News

Samir Al Khatib is the third candidate for the Lebanese premiership to fall from grace since prime minister Saad Al Hariri’s resignation on Octo ber 29, 2019. The independent businessman was nominated for the job two weeks ago by none other than Hariri himself, seen as very suitable for the job due to his distance from the warring parties in the Lebanese quagmire.

Khatib abruptly withdrew his candidacy after meeting with Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Abdul Latif Deryan, who made it clear that a “consensus” had been reached to rename Saad Al Hariri for the job.

Many are now saying that this is what Hariri had wanted all along. He has been cranking out one nominee after another, waiting for them to get rejected by the angry demonstrators, or to decline the job so that only one man remains standing among Lebanese Sunnis, i.e. Hariri himself.

Name ‘burning’

First it was Mohammad Safadi, a 75-year-old ex-economy minister from Tripoli who was flatly rejected by young demonstrators saying that he was too close to the political establishment that they were seeking to topple. Then it was Bahij Tabbara, a 91-year-old ex-justice minister, who declined the job due to old age.

Both were Hariri proteges. Conventional wisdom said that they would fail, raising serious questions about why Hariri put forth their names in the first place. Then it was Samir Al Khatib who fell from grace hours before parliamentary consultations were supposed to kick off at Baabda Palace.

President Michel Aoun is furious with the lack of progress on government formation, blaming it on Hariri’s Future Movement. Sources close to Baabda Palace told Gulf News that he is now in favour of naming Fouad Makhzoumi, an independent Beirut MP and self-made billionaire, as prime minister.

Like Khatib, Makhzoumi is well-connected on all four corners of the region and happens to be an acceptable face. But if the Hariri bloc in parliament doesn’t support him (made up of 20 MPs) then his chances would be weak, to say the least. For now, parliamentary consultations have been postponed until December 16. If they don’t produce a consensus candidate before the Christmas holidays, no government will be formed in Lebanon before January 2020.

Hariri believes that only he is capable of unblocking the $11 billion (Dh40.4 billion) pledged to Lebanon at the international donor’s conference in Paris, known as CEDAR. That would require serious political reforms, however, and the clipping of Hezbollah wings, which Hariri is currently incapable of doing

- Sami Moubayed

Hariri believes that only he is capable of unblocking the $11 billion (Dh40.4 billion) pledged to Lebanon at the international donor’s conference in Paris, known as CEDAR. That would require serious political reforms, however, and the clipping of Hezbollah wings, which Hariri is currently incapable of doing.

His supporters argue that only he is capable of pulling through with the reform package that was promised in late October, days after the uprising began, which included slashing bank revenue and salaries of current and former ministers, prime ministers, and presidents, along with abolishing costly state institutions such as the Ministry of Information, setting up a fund for families in need, and creating a committee to investigate illegal wealth.

Clear conditions

Hariri’s conditions for returning to office are clear: he wants to form a technocrat government where ministers are appointed for their professional merit, rather than their political affiliation.

So far, this has been rejected by the Free Patriotic Movement of caretaker Foreign Minister Gibran Basil, which controls a powerful block of 29 MPs in parliament. Basil was the subject of much of the public outpouring in Lebanon since outbreak of the revolution on October 17, accused of autocracy, arrogance, and gross corruption. He insists that he is entitled to a cabinet post, preferably the foreign ministry that he currently holds.

A government of technocrats would spell out his political demise, and early elections would shatter his parliamentary bloc, explaining why he refuses to bend on both matters. Basil claims that neither he nor Hariri are technocrats but politicians who lead political parties and powerful parliamentary blocs. If one stays, then so should the other.

Ready alternatives

For its part, Hezbollah has been suggesting a “techno-political” government rather than a purely technocratic one, where sovereignty posts go to the political parties, and service-portfolios like electricity are given to independent technocrats. Hariri believes that this simply will not work, insisting that he won’t be part of such a formula because it means keeping Gibran Basil on-board.

When consultations start next week, Hariri’s team will nominate their leader as a first choice — if an agreement is reached on what kind of government is formed. Their second and third choices are lined up, but will likely fail, just like Safadi, Tabbara, and Khatib.

One is Walid Alam Al Din, an expert on bank restructuring who served as Banking Control Commissioner of Lebanon between 2000-2010. For 20 years he worked with Citibank, holding senior office in Washington, New York, London and Saudi Arabia.

He is also the author of a seminal book called ‘Fi Himayet al-Moud’iin’ (To Protect Bank Depositors), prophetically published at the beginning of this year. The second choice is Nawaf Salam, scion of a leading Beiruti political family, who taught at the American University of Beirut, served as Lebanon’s ambassador to the UN, and now serves on the International Court of Justice.

More politically savvy than Khatib, they nevertheless stand a slim chance, unless backed by all sides of the political establishment. That is currently a far stretch, as all sides cannot yet decide on what kind of government ought to be formed, before deciding on who will head it.

The vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters in downtown Beirut on December 15-16 only complicates matters even further, along with a decision from the Lebanese Forces of Samir Gagegea that they will not endorse Hariri’s bid for office, possibly bringing all sides back to Square One.

Update: On Wednesday Hariri said that he was not a candidate for prime minister, ahead of delayed consultations to give the protest-racked country a new government.

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

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