The "extraordinary reasons” behind Saad Hariri’s surprising and brief return to Beirut

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Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Ibrahim al-Amin

Published Monday, August 25, 2014

During his brief stay in Lebanon, Hariri informed concerned officials that he has “abandoned” the mission of trying to topple the Syrian regime, and that he is now ready for a settlement which would pave the way for the election of a new president in Lebanon, who would guarantee in withdrawing the topic of disarming the Resistance from the discussion, and allows the Future Movement to manage the political and economic affairs of the country. For the first time ever, Hariri nominated two men for the job: former Minister Jean Obeid and Army Commander Jean Kahwaji.

A lot of people overestimated the results that would come out of Hariri’s recent visit to Beirut. They hoped that his return would pave the way for a comprehensive settlement, one that would break the political status quo or set the wheel of institutions in motion. Even Hariri’s own supporters thought that he would be staying in the country permanently.

Some within his close circle rescheduled their daily routine to coordinate with their leader’s schedule in Beirut, while others brought out projects they were previously asked to adjourn until “the sheikh” returned to the country.

Only Saad Hariri knew that his stay would be brief and that it was dictated by “extraordinary reasons” since the causes that pushed him to leave in the first place were not yet clear. He only had to resolve a few matters and then promptly returned to the people of the desert and to their habits!

From the moment he arrived until the moment he left, Hariri’s visit almost resembles a box of secrets. When the plane that carried him first landed in Beirut only a few of his associates knew that he was on board. Some in the three convoys that accompanied him from the airport to the capital’s downtown did not know who was in the car, and security officials at the Grand Serail were only informed about his arrival at the last minute.

In any case knowing the exact time of his arrival beforehand would not have made much difference since no one expected massive crowds to pour into the streets, carrying flowers and flags, to welcome the leader back home.

Up until this moment, Hariri and his camp still cannot explain the cold reception by the public, which was restricted to but a few welcoming banners that the Future Movement heads erected in a rush.

Officials in the Future Movement had to resort to former experts in the Syrian intelligence and others who have long worked for security forces within local streets and neighborhoods. It is always the same procedure: an educated person on the street writes down a dozen slogans and others prepare a list with the names of individuals and parties that have to sign it.

Since the Hariri camp still owed money to many companies that produce these signs from the previous legislative elections, his people had to resort to a sole factory which did not have much time to diversify its designs, leading to similar copies of banners stemming straight from Hariri’s headquarters in Beit al-Wasat to the streets of various cities and villages.

A close associate to Hariri attributed the cold public reaction to the fact that Hariri himself did not wish to disturb the people, adding that security measures prevented the crowds from welcoming him. The associate said that Hariri’s schedule was restricted to his ministerial and parliamentary teams, and to some of his party’s organizational members. He had no time to host mayors or municipality chiefs or any public figure, family associations, organizations or others. The main question however is, what would Hariri have said to those people if they had visited him?

Dar al-Fatwa

A major event moved Hariri’s visit to Lebanon ahead. He could have waited a bit longer, but he was obliged to return after the election of a new mufti, following a settlement that had been in process for weeks.

The urgent Saudi-Egyptian mediation paved the way to reach an understanding with former Mufti Mohammed Rachid Kabbani who accepted to step down, while a public relations campaign enabled the new mufti to garner the support of the parties opposed to Hariri.

However, Hariri had other goals in mind:

First, he sought to link the election of a new mufti to his presence in Beirut. Some in his circle refused the idea of leaving this matter in the hands of his associates, knowing that no one in his team were qualified for the confrontation except former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose physical presence was rejected.

Second, he wished to prove that he can have a final say when required, hence sending a message to both friends and foes that he still represents the political leadership of Sunni institutions in Lebanon.

Third, he sought to rule over internal matters concerning religious institutions, beyond his dispute with the former mufti. Hariri always keen to marginalize the Muslim Scholars Association, and now he has Saudi and Egyptian backing. It was decided that the association shall not have any role in Dar al-Fatwa, and those who wished to attend, shall respect the agreement without getting anything in return, while those who opposed it, shall stay away. When some of the association members protested against the election, Hariri was pleased for the opportunity of appearing in the media that presented him as an individual that stood against them.

The Ersal crisis and ISIS

The other aspect of Hariri’s visit concerns the political and social situation arising from the aftermath of the events in Ersal.

The former prime minister is quite aware that he cannot provide the army with the political cover necessary for it to launch a bloody military operation in Ersal and its surrounding neighborhoods. He also realized that for the army to engage in a decisive battle, it will have to coordinate with both Hezbollah and the Syrian army which is categorically rejected, not just by Hariri, but also by regional and international forces who do not wish to establish a role for Hezbollah in protecting Lebanon’s eastern borders like it does in southern parts of Lebanon.

Besides, they do not want to return to the days of field coordination between the Lebanese and the Syrian armies, even if it was limited to the same scope of cooperation that existed during the confrontations in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2007.

Saudi Arabia urgently allocated one billion dollars to support the Lebanese army and armed forces as a means to contain the security situation in the country.

The ambassador of the terrorist French state in Beirut said his country, like many other Western states, was actively involved in the Saudi initiative. He explained that this step was among the framework of a plan to confront extremist Islamic groups active in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, without giving any gains to “adversaries”.

Following Western consultations, it was decided that Saudi Arabia, considered “the top Sunni state,” shall lead the war on the ISIS and al-Nusra Front.

It was also decided that Saad al-Hariri, the “Leader of Sunnis in Lebanon,” shall handle the executive side of this process. Therefore, the Saudi grant was conditioned that Hariri supervises it in his capacity as a direct trustee of the donor. Hence, the grant will be monitored in a manner in which local and regional “adversaries” will not be able benefit from it.

Hariri adhered to this agreement. Reaching Beirut, he acted as if he was the actual prime minister of the country. He attended a security meeting, without being criticized by “the state and the law lovers” who previously slammed Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk for insisting that Hezbollah official Wafic Safa attend a similar meeting for heads of security bodies.

Hariri laid down an initial plan to distribute the grant, and personally held meetings with the army commander, the director generals of Interior Security and General Security and the head of the Information Branch, along with many others, to discuss the details of the grant.

Half of the grant was to be allocated to logistic support while the other half to the security bodies, including $100 million to General Security. However, the head of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, protested so Hariri promised to raise the sum by about 20 to 30 million dollars. Yet the issues surrounding the direct mechanism of how anyone will benefit from the grant were to be discussed later.

The Information Branch, meanwhile, knows what it wants, and it shall obtain it, even by resorting to convulsing ways or from parallel budgets arising out of grants donated by “the free world.”

The Sunni street

Hariri also had to resolve a number of issues related to the security situation, most prominently cutting all ties with the Muslim Scholars Association, although there are current conditions that prohibited him from opening a direct confrontation.

It was decided to restrict all cooperation with the association to matters related to a few villages and neighborhoods and to prevent the association from playing any leadership or mediation role, whether in regards to the arrested Tripoli battle fronts’ leaders, the current situation in Ersal, or the prisons’ issue.

This would explain why the association efforts in terms of the kidnapped soldiers in Ersal has stopped. Hariri’s associates are even speaking openly about close ties between prominent members of the association and the armed groups, claiming that these members had brought the armed groups food and money during recent negotiations visits. Hariri’s associates also accused the association of seeking to control the public by putting the political situation under its wing and benefitting from exterior funding. An official close to Hariri suggested that Qatar is standing behind the Muslim Scholars Association and that Turkey is also playing a certain role.

In addition, Hariri reassessed the Future Movement’s position toward the Syrian crisis.

First, in discussions that he personally held with political leaders and deputies, and second in the discussions held by his assistant Nader al-Hariri with officials in the Future Movement, which for the first time circumvented his brother Ahmed, after Hariri heard numerous complaints that blamed the latter for the Future Movement’s troubles.

Hariri was clear in saying that his position toward the Syrian regime has not changed, particularly that he would be pleased to see it go away. He, however, noted that “despite this fact, overthrowing the regime is not our duty; therefore our spokesmen are prohibited from calling in any of their speeches for toppling the regime, because in Lebanon we cannot bear the cost of the battle to overthrow the Syrian regime, and we cannot bear any victories made by ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and other groups.”

Nevertheless, Hariri reassured his supporters that they will still be able to confront Hezbollah and continue to criticize it for interfering in another state’s affairs, but at the same time without provoking it because that may lead to a confrontation.

He also warned that a few domestic issues may require coordination with Hezbollah, but for the time being this can only take place through Speaker Nabih Berri or other members of the government.

Meanwhile, Hariri was urged to reinforce the Future Movement in the face challenges presented by Islamic parties, which are currently attracting a large number of Sunni youths. Such a process would require massive programs and budgets. Although Hariri promised to meet these demands, many have doubts that these efforts would yield any tangible results soon.

Neutralizing Lebanon

In a step deemed crucial by Hariri and his regional and international backers, the topic of political settlements was discussed with both allies and rivals.

Hariri has a plan already set and it is based on preserving the cabinet, and informing Speaker Berri and other allies that the Future Movement supported extending the mandate of the parliament and would rather not hold the legislative elections at this present time.

He also informed Berri that his party does not mind reaching an agreement about the presidency but he does not want to link this issue to the extension of the parliament’s mandate.

Hariri said frankly, for the first time, that his party does not oppose a reasonable settlement based on withdrawing the candidacies of both General Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, and finding a person capable in preserving an agreed upon political understanding. And for the first time ever, Hariri suggested the names of the individuals he believed fit that profile: Jean Obeid and Jean Kahwaji.

He was clear in saying that the new president would guarantee that the topic of Hezbollah’s arms will not be up for discussion “but that the president will have to reach a clear and detailed agreement with us, about managing both political and economic affairs.”

Eventually, Hariri left the country after laying the groundwork for a period of recess in order for him to catch his breath. He hopes to return soon to make some achievements related to the March 14 camp and other matters.

Meanwhile, Hariri awaits the results of more discussions that are taking place out of the spotlight to further distance Lebanon from the flames engulfing Syria.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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