What next for Lebanon after Hariri’s strategic exit?

There are at least three scenarios for what happens after PM Saad Hariri’s resignation.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on October 29, 2019 [Anadolu]

On October 29, 13 days after massive protests broke out across Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri submitted his resignation to President Michel Aoun, calling it a much needed “positive shock” to the country.

Earlier in the week, he had consulted Aoun and made direct contact with Hezbollah for the first time since more than two years to probe where the group stands on forming a new cabinet. Hariri failed to reach an agreement with them on how to move forward and hence decided to step down.

The resignation, however, does not mean Hariri is fully disengaging from the ruling oligarchy. Rather, it reflects his intent to alter the parameters of the 2016 political deal between his Future Movement and the Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement alliance, which paved the way for Aoun taking the presidency.

It is the second time Hariri finds himself abruptly leaving his position as premier. In January 2011, while he was on a visit to Washington, ministers representing Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) resigned, making his government obsolete and precipitating the ultimate formation of a new one under the leadership of Najib Mikati.

This time, however, it was a different source of pressure that led to Hariri’s political exit. Protesters are demanding that a new government be formed, one run by technocrats unaffiliated with the political class. But certain political forces are resisting and are set on forming a new cabinet to reflect the composition of the current Lebanese parliament which was elected last year. 

The Lebanese protests are putting pressure on the 2016 presidential deal that stabilised the political and security situation in Lebanon but reinforced the sectarian power-sharing agreement that encourages corruption and lack of accountability. This public pressure is inviting the ruling oligarchy to revert back to their political calculations that predate this political deal. Instead of heeding the protesters calls for change, the political class seems concerned with settling political scores to stay in power rather than rethinking the concept of governance.

Hariri, along with Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, and Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, want to renegotiate the parameters of this political deal by deposing President Aoun’s son-in-law and foreign minister, Gebran Bassil who has been widely criticised for his divisive rhetoric and attempted power grabs at the government level. 

Hezbollah and Aoun insist for now on keeping him in the government. However, the president’s position seems ambiguous given the infighting in his own family. Two of Aoun’s three daughters believe that Bassil is tarnishing the credibility and legacy of their father and should go. 

Hezbollah has suggested that it would not agree to Bassil’s removal from the government if Hariri retains the premiership. 

Hariri, for his part, seems to be playing the long game, hoping that his decision to resign will deflect public anger from him and help him regain some political capital. He and his allies believe that ending the presidential deal with Hezbollah might mean their political demise given their alternative is angry protesters who want them replaced, which explains why the oligarchy bonded during the uprising in the past two weeks.

The ball now appears to be in the court of Hezbollah and Aoun. The president will have to consult with parliamentarian blocs before announcing a new prime minister.

Forming a cabinet is a long process in Lebanese politics and its success will partially depend on the protesters’ ability to keep up the pressure on the streets in the face of possible provocations from counterprotest forces.

At this point, there are three scenarios with different possible outcomes.

First, Hezbollah and its allies in Parliament could give Hariri the mandate to form a new cabinet in which case the prime minister will have to decide whether to try to put together a cabinet that keeps Hezbollah-FPM happy or to accept the protesters’ demand and put forward technocrats for all ministerial posts. 

Hezbollah and Aoun may decide either to resist or facilitate depending on public pressure and their own political calculations. Hezbollah understands that conceding to a government run by technocrats might mean early parliamentary elections and a new political process that could diminish its power.

If Hariri pulls off a government of technocrats, this may mean that Hezbollah is taking a step back from being involved in the country’s political system. The group is unlikely to go in that direction, however, if the prime minister retains alone his post given his backing from the Trump administration. 

Alternatively, Aoun, Hariri and Hezbollah could reach an agreement that removes controversial ministers, like Bassil, puts some technocrats in ministerial positions and proposes a reform plan. However, reproducing an amended version of the freshly resigned cabinet will most likely be met by public anger and further protests.

Second, Hezbollah and its allies could also take the lead in the parliament vote on the new cabinet and name a credible prime minister to replace Hariri. The new premier could try to form a technocratic cabinet with the consent of Hezbollah and Hariri, which would appease the protesters, but it is hard to imagine that both parties would surrender policymaking to ministers they cannot control.

Alternatively, Aoun and Hezbollah could use their simple majority to sideline Hariri and have the new premier seek a government with some technocrats in its ranks. This would push Hariri into opposition, force him to fight back within the “deep state” and reignite sectarian sentiments given that Hariri remains the political leader of the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. Such a Lebanese government would be at risk of being perceived as Hezbollah-controlled and could face sanctions from the US, which has listed Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

The third and most likely scenario is the current cabinet remaining as a caretaker government in the foreseeable future and the political oligarchy hedging its bets on a waiting game. This would put pressure on the protesters to give up, as it would extend the country’s political and economic paralysis indefinitely. 

Thus, Hariri’s resignation, far from resolving the crisis, has pushed the country further into political turmoil. In the short term, it is likely that Lebanon will face a political dead-end, until various forces weigh up their options. A quick resolution will largely depend on whether Hezbollah will remain in denial on the opposite side of a significant part of his own constituency or will show flexibility and ultimately recognise the new realities of the Lebanese uprising. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.