When Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced he was suspending his political career in January, calling for a Sunni boycott of Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections, few took him seriously. Hariri cited the collapse of law and order, along with Hezbollah’s undue influence, as the main reasons for his withdrawal. Some thought that he was bluffing, pretending to retire from politics in order to trigger Sunni demonstrations asking him to reconsider. Others believed that he was stepping down either for financial reasons (no longer as rich as he used to be and thus incapable of further bankrolling his clientele) or because he had lost the support of Saudi Arabia. Others predicted that Hariri would reverse his decision ahead of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 15, 2022.
That did not happen, however, and Lebanon’s Sunnis have moved on –– without Hariri, and so has Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, some Sunnis remain committed to his boycott, complicating things for Riyadh and for the handful of ambitious Lebanese politicians who have been trying to fill the huge void left behind by Hariri’s withdrawal. They have collectively defied Hariri’s orders, calling on Sunnis to take part in the elections, both as voters and as candidates, in order to reclaim the state from Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s number one enemy in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s Sunnis have moved on –– without Hariri, and so has Saudi Arabia.
Under the country’s sectarian system, Lebanon’s parliament is made up of 128 MPs, divided equally between Muslims and Christians (with 27 positions reserved for Sunni Muslims). Lebanon has 3.9 million registered voters, 225,000 of whom are Lebanese expatriates living in the diaspora. The expatriate voter population contains 45,000 Sunni Muslims, 75,000 M aronite Christians, 44,000 Shiites, 22,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, and 15,000 Catholics and Druze. In the outgoing chamber, Hariri’s team had a bloc of 20 MPs while Hezbollah enjoyed 12 and its allies in the Amal Movement had 17.
Saudi Arabia’s Return to Lebanon
In mid-April, Saudi Arabia restored its ambassador to Beirut, Walid al-Boukhari, who had been recalled in October 2021 over a diplomatic rift caused by remarks from then-Minister of Information George Qordahi. Boukhari’s comeback coincided with last minute preparations for the parliamentary elections, encouraging Saudi Arabia’s friends to unite against Hezbollah. It also angered Hezbollah, which accused the Saudi diplomat of returning to Lebanon in order to finance its opponents among Lebanese Sunnis and Christians.
In response, Boukhari made it clear, through a Ramadan iftar hosted at his residence in mid-April, that he was not reconciling with all of Lebanon, but only with the anti-Hezbollah camp. For starters, he did not pay Hezbollah-ally President Michel Aoun a courtesy visit, as customarily done for a new or returning Arab diplomat.. Invited to his dinner table were ex-presidents Amin Gemayel and Michel Suleiman, who are Hezbollah opponents, and excluded former president Emille Lahhoud, who was a Hezbollah ally. Also present were former prime ministers Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam, but not Hassan Diab, who is also close to Hezbollah. Hariri was visibly absent from the dinner.
Saudi Arabi’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman thinks little of Hariri.
It is an open secret in Beirut that Saudi Arabi’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS) thinks little of Hariri, seeing him as too soft to stand up to Iran and Hezbollah. For reasons beyond his control, Hariri had to accommodate Hezbollah in all three of his cabinets, and he relied heavily on them to nominate him for a fourth round of the premiership back in 2020. When the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) issued a verdictfinding a member of Hezbollah responsible for the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri, Hariri did nothing to pursue the culprit or severe relations with the party. During that period, so upset was MbS with Hariri that he refused to grant him an audience, forcing the prime minister-designate to reach out to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which further enraged Saudi Arabia.
Today, Hezbollah and Hariri have one thing in common: frustration with the Saudi Ambassador’s pre-election activism. Both feel that it is directed against them, each in their respective constituencies. Hezbollah says that the Saudi ambassador is trying to influence voters, while Hariri claims that he is trying to find new Sunni leaders for Lebanon.
The pro-Hezbollah daily al-Akhbar reported that Saudi money has shown up in the northern city of Tripoli and will soon emerge in Beirut as well. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah drew parallels between the Saudi financing in Tripoli and the 2009 parliamentary elections, when “hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on media, election campaigns and vote buying in the last weeks leading up to the elections.” The election famously led to a victory for Hariri’s Future Movement, which won 33 out of 128 seats in the 2009 Chamber.
Much to Hariri’s dismay, gone is the era of a single Sunni leader representing Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. MbS is now exploring a wide array of Sunni figures, all in-waiting for Riyadh’s grace, earmarked to lead the Sunnis’ post-Hariri Lebanon. The list includes the Tripoli-based ex-security chief Ashraf Rifi, former premier Fouad al-Siniora, and Hariri’s brother, Bahaa El-Hariri, who is auditioning for parliament through a parliamentary coalition called Sawa Li Lubnan (although he himself is not running for office—at least not yet). While Bahaa is lobbying in Beirut and Sidon, Rifi is campaigning in north Lebanon, promising to “liberate Lebanon” from “Iranian occupation.” According to pro-Hezbollah media, he is trying hard to secure Saudi funds for his campaign and is allied with Walid Jumblatt of the Social Progressive Party, who this week, described the Axis of Resistance (as Iran likes to call its allies in the Middle East) as an “Axis of Fraud and Destruction.”
Gone is the era of a single Sunni leader representing Saudi Arabia in Lebanon.
On April 21, Ambassador Boukhari visited Tripoli, a city that ranks second to Beirut in terms of Sunni importance, and that has traditionally been used to challenge both Hezbollah and the Hariris since the 1990s. Rifi is the only aggressively anti-Hezbollah candidate in the city, challenging Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Azm Movement, which has refused to go head to head with Hezbollah, despite Mikati’s strong ties to Saudi Arabia. Mikati needs Hezbollah to secure a second round at the premiership after the new chamber is inaugurated. Members of the Iran-backed party are sitting members of his present government. Mikati also needs Hezbollah to increase his share of parliamentary representation up from the small bloc of four MPs that he controls since 2018.
The Battle for Beirut
Meanwhile, in Beirut, Siniora has positioned himself as a Sunni kingmaker, defying Hariri’s orders by calling on Sunnis to participate in the elections. He also created a coalition called Beirut Tuwajeh, headed by Khaled Qabbani, a former cabinet minister from Hariri’s Future Movement. However, Bahaa is challenging him within the Lebanese capital and is also campaigning on an anti-Hezbollah ticket.
Although defectors from Hariri’s party have joined Bahaa and Siniora, others remain committed to the boycott Hariri ordered in January. That was made clear during the early diaspora voting in May, where expat voter turnout in countries such as Saudi Arabia did not top 50 percent. The majority of Lebanese living in Saudi Arabia are Sunnis, who are pro-Hariri. In 2018 when Hariri was running for office, their voter turnout was 64 percent . Throughout the Lebanese capital, even in tourist areas such as Hamra Street, posters are popping up pledging loyalty to Hariri and his boycott, saying that they won’t backstab the “father of Sunnis” as Hariri once referred to himself. Put in perspective, Hariri’s Future Movement party received 62,970 votes in the 2018 elections out of a total of 142,000 Beirut voters.
It remains to be seen, however, who will prevail on election day. Will Hariri’s loyalists stand by him until the very end, refusing to take part or legitimize the elections? Or will they be swayed into participation by Saudi Arabia and its new friends, lured perhaps by financial reward and political incentives?