Beirut, Lebanon – Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been tasked with forming his fourth government, winning a slim majority of votes in parliament just under a year after his resignation amid mass-protests last year.
Hariri’s dramatic return was enabled by the votes of 65 MPs from across the country’s political spectrum, including his own Future Movement, the Shia Amal Movement, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist party, ostensibly secular but closely allied to Hezbollah, a Shia party with its own military wing.
Abstentions, numbering 53, also came from different political groups, including the Lebanese Forces, former Hariri allies who have been styling themselves as opposition, and their opponents the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), former coalition partners with Hariri before ties soured.
The Iran-back Hezbollah party also did not vote for Hariri, though they have been among the most enthusiastic proponents of his return since his resignation on October 29 last year.
Hariri always remained the strongest Sunni Muslim candidate to take the post, which must be held by a Sunni under a 77-year-old pact that gave the presidency to Maronite Christians and the position of Speaker of the House to a Shia Muslim.
In a short address following his designation, Hariri promised to form a government of non-partisan experts to implement economic and political reforms outlined in an initiative proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron during a September visit.
Hariri also promised to work to reconstruct Beirut from damage sustained in an August 4 explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in modern history, which killed 200 people, injured more than 6,500 and destroyed large parts of the city.
The blast caused up to $4.6bn in material damage and $3.2bn in associated economic losses, according to a World Bank assessment.
In a sign of Lebanon’s deep political crisis, Hariri is the third person to be tasked with forming a government this year, after little-known academic Hassan Diab – who succeeded in forming a government but resigned after the blast – and diplomat Mustafa Adib, who was unsuccessful.
Hariri received the smallest number of votes in parliament, compared with Diab’s 69 and Adib’s 90.
As newly named prime minister, Hariri likely faces a difficult government formation process after Aoun on Wednesday indicated that he would “participate in the formation of a government, pursuant to the provisions of the Constitution.”
Aoun had postponed the consultations last week as the FPM, the party he founded that is now headed by his son-in-law, said they would not pick Hariri.
In the time since Hariri resigned, Lebanon’s economic and crisis has deepened and been compounded by the coronavirus. Then the blast dealt a new blow.
Hariri’s return marks the biggest challenge yet for activists involved in the nationwide uprising against the country’s corrupt political class that had led to the resignation of Hariri and his coalition government last year.
“Hariri’s return is the peak of the counter-revolution,” Nizar Hassan, a political activist with independent group Li Haqqi told Al Jazeera. “A pillar of the political establishment, a multi-millionaire who represents the banks and foreign interests, and a symbol of inefficient governance and widespread corruption: He represents everything we revolted against,”
More troubling for Hassan is the “weak popular reaction to his return”.
“Obviously it doesn’t mean that people support his return, but rather that there is no revolutionary momentum,” he said.
The protest movement now faces a dilemma of whether to publicly oppose his designation or not – and what to do with the movement as a whole.
“On one hand, not protesting will look like a full defeat of the revolution. On the other, a very small show of force would send the same signal,” he said. “But the bigger question is whether to invest in protest actions in general for the upcoming period, or whether it is more worthwhile to work internally on strengthening our movement.”
The counter-revolution was on full display on Wednesday when supporters of Hariri confronted anti-establishment protesters in downtown Beirut and burned down a large 11-meter clenched-fist icon that became a symbol of Lebanon’s uprising that began on October 17 last year.
Supporters of Hariri’s political rivals-cum-supporters, Hezbollah and Amal, had done the same thing in November last year.
A new version was already up by Thursday mourning. It was later supplanted by another, larger version erected by a group that is backed by Saad Hariri’s estranged brother, Bahaa, who has made an entry into Lebanese politics following the uprising.
‘For whom will he work?’
If and when it is formed, Hariri’s government faces an immense task. Not least is Lebanon’s crippling financial crisis, which has left more than half the population in poverty, depreciated the currency by more than 80 percent, caused shortages of basic goods such as medicine and foods, and is leading to growing instability.
The crisis centres on the country’s insolvent banking system, which has barred people access to their deposits for a year amid political disagreements on how to distribute the losses.
But Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, says it is unlikely Hariri – a major shareholder in one of Lebanon’s biggest banks himself – will have the interests of average people as his top priority.
“For whom will he be working and serving? I think he will serve in particular the banks and richer segments of society and the political parties,” Atallah told Al Jazeera.
Atallah also sees little reason to expect Hariri to have more success implementing much-needed reforms than he did in previous governments, even as establishment parties have lost support in the past year and have fewer spoils to share among themselves.
“It’s a system preserving itself even as it becomes more and more broken and unstable,” he said.