The writing has been on the wall in Lebanon since early summer. Many expected the marriage of convenience between Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun to snap — but not as abruptly as it did on Saturday.
Hariri announced his resignation in a televised address delivered from Riyadh. Aoun was neither consulted nor informed beforehand, which sent shockwaves throughout Lebanon. It may well be that Hariri was asked to resign by Saudi Arabia, a country that has long backed him and indeed bankrolled both his own career and that of his father and predecessor, Rafik al-Hariri.
During his previous tenure as premier, he was forced out of office during a meeting at the Oval Office with President Barak Obama. Back then, Hariri’s cabinet collapsed when ministers from Hezbollah and Amal walked out on him, embarrassing him at the White House. His latest resignation may have had an element of revenge.
Weeks after Saudi Arabian State Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer Al Sabhan called for the toppling of Hezbollah, promising “astonishing developments” in the upcoming days, the Lebanese politician blamed his resignation on Hezbollah and Iran.
Hariri was never very fond of Hezbollah, accusing its top command of being behind his father’s 2005 murder. He briefly set aside political differences with its secretary-general, Hasan Nasrallah, back in 2009, creating a cabinet that promised to “protect” Hezbollah’s arms. More recently, in November 2016, he reached another understanding with the group, agreeing to accept their ally – Aoun – as president on the condition that Auon return him to the premiership. This power-sharing formula was regarded as a tentative truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but its foundations were shaky, too good to last.
Hariri remained highly critical of Hezbollah’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict, claiming that it had attracted ISIS and other jihadi groups into Lebanese territory. Putting his full weight behind the Syrian Opposition, he repeatedly called on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to pull his troops out of Syria and famously said he would only visit Syria once the regime of Bashar al-Assad was toppled.
In August, two of his cabinet ministers – members of Hezbollah and its parliamentary ally, the Amal Movement – visited Syria against his will, taking part in a high-level economic function. The two infuriated the prime minister by firing off statements from Damascus in their official capacities. Then, in September, Hariri’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, also defied him as he met with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Mouallem, at the United Nations. Some weeks later, Hezbollah launched a full-fledged offensive against ISIS pockets near the Lebanese border, without approval from the Lebanese Government.
The power-sharing formula was regarded as a tentative truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but its foundations were shaky, too good to last
Another wedge issue has been Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Hezbollah has been pressing hard for their return, claiming that their native cities and towns are now safe. Hariri insists their lives are still in danger back home and wants them to stay. Hezbollah media outlets have accused him of wanting to keep them in Lebanon because they are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims opposed to the Damascus government, which helps to balance Lebanon’s sectarian dynamics.
In his resignation speech, Hariri lashed out against Hezbollah, saying its arms were targeting the “chests of Lebanese and Syrians.” He repeated a long-held demand that all arms should be in the hands of the Lebanese State, and not with non-state players, be they Shiite or Sunni.
He also lashed out at the Iranians who back Hezbollah, saying: “The evil that Iran spreads in the region will backfire on it.” Hezbollah’s actions, he added, have put Lebanon “in the eye of the storm,” thanks to rising numbers of Islamic fundamentalists in certain pockets since 2014.
Hariri hinted that he feared for his life, saying that Lebanon was living in a climate “similar to the atmosphere that prevailed” at the time of his father’s assassination. “I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life.” He then boomed: “Iran’s arms in the region will be cut off.”
President Aoun has yet to comment on Hariri’s resignation, saying that he will discuss the matter with his Prime Minister once he returns from Saudi Arabia. Many suspect, however, that Hariri will not be returning to Beirut anytime soon.
Constitutionally, Aoun is able to refuse the resignation but this is unlikely, as both he and Hezbollah will be glad to see the end of Hariri. They will likely call on a friendly independent Sunni to assume the premiership, since by convention neither a Shiite nor a Christian can assume the job. Hariri’s departure now gives them a free hand to tailor Lebanese politics to their liking ahead of parliamentary elections set for next May 2018.