Protesters in Lebanon took to the streets on Thursday night, shouting “Thief”, as local media reports said business tycoon and former Tripoli Member of Parliament Mohammad Safadi will be nominated as the country’s next prime minister.
After two weeks of closed-door consultations following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 29, the decision was reached at a meeting on Thursday evening between Hariri and representatives of the major Shia parties, Hezbollah and Amal.
Safadi, 75, has agreed to take on the role pending agreement of all the major parliamentary parties, a process which will begin on Monday, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil confirmed.
Safadi has close ties with the Saudi royal family, having made much of his money in the kingdom. Emigrating to Saudi Arabia from Lebanon in 1975, he built a business empire constructing residential compounds across the country, and once worked as a manager for Saudi Air Force chief Prince Turki bin Nasser.
Despite Bassil claiming Safadi “is not accused in any corruption scandals,” he has faced a number of business-related controversies.
In 2006, the Guardian newspaper reported that he was named as a “second middle-man for the Saudis” in an inquiry over illegal arms sales conducted by the British company, BAE Systems.
He owns most of Zeitunay Bay, the luxury marina area in Beirut, in a joint venture with Hariri’s family business, Solidere. Activists accuse Safadi of using his political connection to buy the land at rock-bottom prices.
‘Are they deaf?’
The nomination of Safadi, a Saudi-aligned Sunni billionaire, to replace Hariri, another Saudi-aligned Sunni billionaire, has struck many as tone-deaf in the backdrop of protests against the Lebanese elites.
“Who in their right mind considered Safadi to be a good option for prime minister in the middle of an anti-elitist revolution?” asked medical student Ramez Dagher on Twitter. “Are they deaf or are they stupid?”
The choice is being seen as so tone-deaf it has prompted rumours of a double bluff from the government to lower the protesters’ expectations: by floating an unacceptable initial nomination, the next candidate might seem more acceptable by comparison.
Political insiders say the logic behind the decision to nominate Safadi could be his successful business empire and his proximity with Lebanon’s political establishment.
The strategy was attempted in the past, too, with wealthy businessmen Najib Mikati and Fouad Siniora, both of whom were nominated to the prime ministership during periods of instability in Lebanon. Their names were again mooted for the prime ministership in recent weeks, but protesters baulked at the suggestion.
Safadi has served in government several times, most recently as the country’s finance minister from 2011 to 2014. He has close ties with caretaker Prime Minister Hariri’s family; his wife Violette is the minister for women and youth affairs in the current cabinet.
Activists on the street, however, say Safadi is emblematic of the system they are trying to bring down.
As the news of his nomination broke just before midnight on Thursday, protesters took to the streets outside Safadi’s residences in Beirut and Tripoli, shouting “Come out thief, you are one of them.”
“How disconnected from reality are they? After these protests?” said activist Naila Saba. “I’m scared of what I’ll wake up to [tomorrow].”
Another protester, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the nomination would only galvanise the demonstrators. “I am actually delighted. Things were beginning to quiet down and we need some action.”
Similar reactions were seen across the country, encapsulated in a satirical video circulating on social media following the announcement.
The video shows a tired protester returning home and removing the Lebanese flag tied around his head to go to bed. “I have news for you,” says his female relative, informing him of Safadi’s nomination.
The protester rolls his eyes, sighs as he wears his flag bandana again, and walks out to continue demonstrating.
“After everything the protesters have been demanding, it is pretty absurd that they ended up picking someone who is as close to the status quo as possible,” said political analyst Nadim El Kaak. “I think it is reflective of the bubble they have been living in.”
“[The move] proves the disconnect that is pretty glaring between the priorities of the political establishment and the concerns of the protesters. They’re in a completely different world,” he said.
Further demonstrations are planned on Friday in Zeitunay Bay against the decision.
“Now, there is definitely that sense of motivation and anger, so I expect a really big crowd to show up this weekend on the streets,” said El Kaak.