After five years of self-imposed exile, Saad Hariri’s return to Lebanon has been met with mixed feelings, both by his own supporters and his enemies – in this tiny, troubled country, which awkwardly straddles regional superpowers Iran and Saudi Arabia.
For years many have argued that something has to give in this bizarre set up which allowed Saudi Arabia to financially support key sectors of Lebanon’s society, while turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s grasp of power and Iran’s proximity.
That breaking point was reached recently, leaving many to wonder if Lebanon can ever be a two-speed state again. But has Hariri’s return to Lebanese politics come too late to get the country back on an even keel?
The love-hate relationship that Lebanon and Saudi Arabia enjoyed took a turn for the worse when Riyadh cancelled a $3bn military grant to beef up the Lebanese army.
It was as though the build-up of pressure had reached the point where a main fuse blew; days later Lebanon’s justice minister resigned citing Hezbollah domination after the release of one of its coalition ministers from jail.
Commentators argue that Saudi Arabia simply wasn’t getting enough bang for its buck. Certainly it became harder for Riyadh to share Lebanon with its enemy, when the former became despondent and the latter emboldened.
But there are other factors that made the Saudis defy the logic of a rich man who can’t accept that he’s paid millions for a fake Rembrandt. The Syrian Civil War, which Hezbollah entered in 2013, might have sullied the cherished view of the Lebanese state for the Saudis – with recent gains there further annoying minds in Riyadh, but more recently Hariri’s own entourage have been behaving badly as well.
The writing was on the wall for quite some time. Since early 2014, Saudi-backed media outlets in Lebanon have known that their sponsors were deeply unhappy as they stopped their cheques. One might even blame Lebanon’s flagship titles for not pandering to their sponsors’ needs as even March 14 media failed to act, when it was needed.
The elite in Lebanon have behaved like compulsive gamblers at the blackjack table, doubling their bet every time they win - only to finally to lose everything - and then to walk away from the game.
But the recent move might not play into Saudi hands. If Lebanon has to rely on its army to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on its borders without the military kit it needs, this will put enormous pressure on the present caretaker government.
If extremists take any more hostages, for example, this will merely bolster Hezbollah’s argument that it needs to take control of the security operations against ISIL – opening up an old wound that the Shia group is behaving like a state within a state.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam would probably resign if any hostage situation emerged due to the army being outfoxed – which could trigger chaos. Yet, could this be what the Saudis want. Could such disarray strengthen the March 14 block, which has in recent months been indulging in in-fighting?
For Hezbollah, wouldn’t such a scenario overstretch its resources with such security work? And wouldn’t such a move give a new impetus to Hariri as the only one who can normalise the situation. Once installed as prime minister, he could no doubt procure considerable amounts of cash from Riyadh for Lebanon’s army – the only real institution to offer a token counterweight to Hezbollah’s might?
If this is the gambit, however, might Iran not seize the moment to capitalise on the paralysis in Lebanon? In so many ways, Lebanon is already an Iranian satellite, and perhaps this latest “coup de grace” by Riyadh might end Hariri’s bid to save the country from the abyss – while the country’s political classes display a shocking disregard for dialogue.
Many fear that Hezbollah thrives on the crisis in Lebanon as its aim is to take more power through a shake-up of the establishment.
And yet, unity and rebuilding the state machine – so that three-metre high mountains of rubbish can be removed – should be the priority now for the prodigious Hariri. Common sense is the only thing that can save the country from a hell left by an outdated secular system that has sired a breed of politician who place themself first, their clan second and their political group third – with “state” and “country” a mere postscript.
The elite in Lebanon have behaved like compulsive gamblers at the blackjack table, doubling their bet every time they win only to finally to lose everything – and then to walk away from the game.
The recent splenetic outbursts of Samir Gaegea to apparently jump ship and support Hezbollah’s candidate in the presidential election, and the recent resignation of the justice minister, are ominous signs: Hariri has to rebuild his bloc first, and take the initiative to reach out to Hezbollah because never before has there been so much to play for and so little bargain with.
Even a token form of unity, which dampens Hezbollah’s fiery rhetoric towards Lebanon’s friends in Riyadh, could move mountains. This is his time to show the Lebanese that he is prepared to place his country before his own political aspirations and lead by example.
Martin Jay is a Beirut-based correspondent for Deutsche Welle TV and the founding editor of An-Nahar English.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.