Beirut, Lebanon – When former Prime Minister Saad Hariri suspended his 17-year political career last month, many supporters in his party’s key Beirut stronghold of Tariq al-Jdideh did not react.
A dozen men rushed to an intersection to burn tyres and rubbish bins to protest the move, but most residents locked up their shops and went home.
The wealthy Hariri family led the Saudi-backed Future Movement, Lebanon’s leading Sunni political group for three decades, ever since former billionaire Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction in the early 1990s.
Hariri senior was assassinated 17 years ago, on February 14, 2005, and his family and allies point the finger at the Syrian government and their allies in Lebanon, Iran-backed Hezbollah.
The Future Movement has since lost power and popularity, while Saudi Arabia is no longer investing in both country and party, and is angered by Hezbollah’s growing influence.
Now, analysts say there is a political “void” for the Sunni community that represents one-third of the population, in a country governed by a fragile sectarian power-sharing system.
“We will see the fragmentation of Sunni representation in the upcoming elections,” Bachar El-Halabi, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Lebanon’s next parliamentary elections are in May, the first since the country’s economy started crumbling in August 2019. But El-Halabi said there will not be another leader representing the Sunni community across the board, often referred to as za’im, such as Hariri. “No one popularity-wise has this appeal.”
The Future Movement currently has 20 lawmakers in parliament, with representatives from a handful of Sunni-majority districts, most notably Beirut, Tripoli, and Saida. Hariri’s political rivals and upcoming anti-establishment groups see an opportunity.
“I’m against the principle of za’im. If we want to build a country where your children and grandchildren can live, we can no longer allow a za’im or sole reference for a religious community,” Fouad Makhzoumi, a member of parliament, told Al Jazeera.
‘Control the Sunnis’
Makhzoumi is a billionaire business magnate who in 2018 ran against the Future Movement in Beirut and won a seat.
But he is focusing on Beirut’s second district – calling it the “mother of all battles” – and does not see Hariri’s exit as an opportunity to expand his political movement to other towns.
“I’m sure Akkar’s [district] people would have leaders that they want, same with Tripoli, West Bekaa…etc,” Makhzoumi explained.
Makhzoumi, like Hariri, opposes Iran-backed Shia movement Hezbollah’s increasing influence in the country. But he said Saad Hariri should have been aggressive against them, especially after an international tribunal gave a Hezbollah operative five life sentences in absentia for playing a “central” role in the assassination of his father. The operative, Salim Ayyache, was never apprehended.
He said Hezbollah will try to fill that void with its own allies. “They want to control the Sunnis,” the business magnate said.
Over on the capital’s Corniche promenade by the Mediterranean Sea, activists launched Beirut Tuqawem (Beirut Resists), a politically progressive electoral campaign that will also run in Beirut’s second district. They oppose Lebanon’s mosaic of sectarian ruling parties and the banks – without any exceptions.
“I think there is a space today that is open to youth-led progressive rhetoric that will really be a new compass and perspective that isn’t about sectarianism and za’ims,” Ibrahim Mneimneh of the group told Al Jazeera.
Mneimneh unsuccessfully ran in both municipality and parliamentary elections in 2016 and 2018 with civil-society-backed groups, but he said things have changed since Lebanon’s economic crisis and mass protests in late 2019.
“There is no longer anyone except for a small minority that truly believes the establishment’s parties can rule the country, or are affected by their political rhetoric. They know it’s all bankrupt,” said Mneimneh.
Once a middle-income country, Lebanon’s economic crisis has plunged more than three-quarters of the population into poverty, decimated 90 percent of the currency’s value, and skyrocketed food prices. Without any viable social services and state institutions, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese families are reliant on charities and relatives for financial assistance.
More people now want “political clarity”, Mneimneh said.
However, the Hariri family is not completely out of the picture. Saad Hariri’s older brother, Bahaa Hariri, a billionaire businessman who has opted to stay behind the scenes for years, has pushed his political project Sawa Li Lubnan (Together For Lebanon).
For almost a half decade, Bahaa has been touted as Saad Hariri’s successor with Saudi Arabia’s blessing to lead the Future Movement party. He has been living abroad, and has not returned to Lebanon in years.
“I will continue the martyred Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s journey,” the older Hariri said in a video message a few days after Saad’s withdrawal. “Any misleading or intimidating messaging about a void in any of the components of Lebanese society only serves the nation’s enemies.”
Bahaa Hariri will not be a candidate, but he is making sure Sawa Li Lubnan is visible with huge billboards across the country and heavy investment into its media. The group has taken part in community and social work over the past year as well.
The older Hariri dismissed the Future Movement’s more diplomatic and compromising approach with Hezbollah, calling it “political blasphemy”. Saad Hariri had claimed the compromise was to prevent a new civil war in the country.
Sawa Li Lubnan spokesperson Hady Mourad told Al Jazeera the party “transcends all regions and sects” and its membership is not exclusively Sunni.
“Our vision directly intersects with Rafik Hariri’s project, which was building a state not a leadership project,” the spokesperson said.
Hariri senior’s legacy is mixed with critics accusing him of ignoring productive economic sectors and establishing policy that paved the way for the country’s economic collapse. However, his supporters view Hariri as a state-building technocrat who was not part of Lebanon’s ruling parties that took part in the civil war.
Unlike Makhzoumi and Beirut Tuqawem, Mourad said the party intends on running in a handful of districts across Lebanon, but he did not comment further about the districts and alliances.
“Well, we support [Saad] Hariri with this step, which was done at a difficult time in Lebanon at a time where there has been an Arab closure of the country,” said Mourad. “We wish nothing but good for Hariri and the Future Movement.”