Saad Hariri’s return as Lebanese prime minister raises hope, skepticism

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 23 (UPI) — The return of veteran politician Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister was met with mixed reactions as the country plunges deeper into economic crisis and despair grows among an exhausted population.

Hariri resigned from the same post almost a year ago when protests broke out to denounce widespread corruption and demand the ouster of all political leaders. After his nomination to return on Thursday, Hariri pledged to quickly form a government of non-partisan specialists that would implement economic and financial reforms in line with those proposed by France.

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He said his focus will be to stop the country’s collapse and rebuild what was destroyed by the massive Aug. 4 explosion at the Beirut port.

Critics argue Hariri’s appointment protects Hezbollah‘s authority and foils serious opposition.

Several developments may have helped pave the way for Hariri’s comeback: the port explosion; the failure of the outgoing Hezbollah-backed cabinet of Hassan Diab to halt the economic deterioration; U.S. sanctions targeting Hezbollah’s allies; fresh talks between Lebanon and Israel to settle their maritime border dispute; and U.S.-Iran de-escalation in the region ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

“What’s happening is not just reshuffling the cards with some kind of a Sunni-Shiite accord [inside Lebanon] but also a new momentum in the area,” a highly placed official source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told UPI. “It will be very difficult for anybody to obstruct the French initiative that the European Union is supporting and the U.S. now going along with.”

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French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Beirut twice after the port explosion, has been pressuring Lebanese political leaders to swiftly implement reforms. He has drafted a roadmap for them that includes a timeline of action to form a new government, resume talks with the International Monetary Fund, reform the power sector, appoint members of a national anti-corruption authority and improve border controls at ports, the airport and border crossings.

To Macron’s frustration, little has been done. But some experts say the situation is ripe for change.

“The mood has changed. There is more than one thing at play,” the source said, adding that Hariri was entrusted to implement the French initiative, with support from the United States, and Iran has “shown some flexibility.”

Hariri, a Sunni, and the Shiite Amal-Hezbollah parties have agreed to keep Lebanon from plunging into sectarian clashes that would destroy the country, as has happened in Syria and Iraq.

U.S.-brokered maritime border talks with Israel, which started Oct. 14, were “another indication of change,” Michel Nawfal, an expert on Middle East affairs and former editor in-chief of the Institute for Palestinian Studies, told UPI. “Such negotiations need a capable government in place, and accelerating the demarcation of the maritime frontier has to do with the big battle over gas in the Mediterranean.”

Away from the complex regional interests, Hariri’s return to the premiership came to the dismay of the anti-establishment protesters who have been trying to get rid of the corrupt leaders and impose a government of independent specialists who would save the country from collapse.

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“The fundamentals did not change, the balance of power has not changed and I can’t see a breakthrough,” Sami Nader, an economist and director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Beirut, told UPI. “This is an exit strategy for the French while the U.S. is busy with its presidential elections.”

Nader saw Hariri’s appointment as an attempt by the ruling parties “to keep the system in place and ultimately saving it from collapse.”

It was also meant to foil any possible serious opposition that would challenge Hezbollah’s control of the country with Hariri at the head of the new government and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt supporting it, said Sam Menassa, executive director of the La Maison du Futur research institute.

“This is all to boost Hezbollah’s authority in Lebanon…It serves Hezbollah’s interests and saves the ruling political class,” Menassa told UPI. “They are seeking a minimum that would prevent the disintegration of the country…some minimal assistance that would ease up the deteriorating conditions, but this will not solve the problem.”

To unlock international aid, Hariri’s cabinet will have to pass a budget that includes cuts in public spending, reforming the electricity sector and other painful and unpopular measures at a time the Central Bank can no longer continue to subsidize essential necessities.

In just one year, the Lebanese pound lost 80 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar; inflation, poverty and unemployment rates have reached record levels; businesses are closing; the COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard tourism and the health and education sectors.

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The port explosion added to the misery, with more than 300,000 people displaced, their homes destroyed.

The political leaders only “came together to force the release of some assistance,” said Nader. “The situation will not calm down…There will be more deterioration.”

Menassa compared Hariri’s return to “a dose of morphine.”

“After six or seven months, we will be in a worse situation,” he said.

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