Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri withdrew his candidacy for the premiership last July, after failing to form a cabinet. In January 2022, he announced he will withdraw from politics altogether and not run in the upcoming elections, creating a big void in Lebanon’s Sunni community, which has been led by Hariri and his father since 1992. Many are struggling to fill the vacuum, including Hariri’s elder brother, Bahaa.
Subsequently, former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora held a press conference in Beirut, on February 23, calling on Sunni Muslims not to boycott the country’s next parliamentary elections scheduled for May 15, 2022. Sunnis currently hold 27 out of 64 Muslim seats in Lebanon’s Chamber, with another 64 held by the country’s Christians.
Voting is a national duty, declared Siniora, an obligation for every Lebanese in order to loosen the grip of Hezbollah, otherwise, “a free say for the Lebanese state won’t be possible.”
A ranking economist and seasoned politician, Siniora was the right-hand man to former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Five months later, he became premier until 2009, when he was replaced by Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad al-Hariri.
The young Hariri led Lebanese Sunnis for the following 13 years until finally withdrawing from politics last January. Blaming his decision – at least partially – on Hezbollah tutelage, Hariri said that neither he nor any member of his Future Movement will be running for parliament in May.
Saad Hariri led Lebanese Sunnis for 13 years, until finally withdrawing from politics last January.
Other reasons for Hariri distancing himself from parliament included lack of funds to bankroll a nationwide campaign and no support from Saudi Arabia – the traditional patron of the Hariri family in Lebanese politics. The Saudis believe Hariri is too soft on Hezbollah, which explains why they didn’t endorse his last attempt at forming a government in 2020-2021.
Since then, the kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS) has repeatedly refused to grant him an audience. That, too, explains why Hariri is not as wealthy as he used to be. Last summer, he said so bluntly on television: “I used to be a millionaire, but no longer am.”
Hariri’s sudden withdrawal from politics sent shockwaves throughout the Sunni Muslim community, which, since 1992, and for three solid decades, had been led by his father and then by him. Sunnis suddenly found themselves headless, powerless, and vulnerable, explaining why Fouad al-Siniora and other Sunni leaders have been actively trying to reassure them that all was not lost and that they could still be saved as a community.
Previously, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Abdul Latif Deryan also said that the upcoming elections won’t be boycotted by Lebanon’s Sunnis. That statement was endorsed by current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, another Sunni heavyweight who returned to the premiership in September 2021, only to announce on March 14 that he too would not run for re-election.
The Ambitions of Bahaa al-Hariri
One person who didn’t seem to mind Saad al-Hariri’s early retirement was his elder brother, Bahaa al-Hariri, a business tycoon living in Saudi Arabia. Hours after his brother’s announcement, Bahaa came out with a televised address declaring himself the legitimate heir to the Hariri family, while also suggesting that he was the new Sunni leader of Lebanon. The doors of the Hariri family, he noted, “will never be closed.”
A Boston University graduate, Bahaa, 56, was never active in politics. Instead, he’s been focused on maintaining and expanding his father’s business empire since 2005. That changed in 2019, when he vocally supported the October 2019 Revolution that toppled his brother’s third and last cabinet.
In 2019, Bahaa vocally supported the October 2019 Revolution that toppled his brother’s third and last cabinet.
More recently, Bahaa announced that he will be joining the next parliament through a coalition called “Sawa Li Lubnan.” Billboards have already been raised throughout Beirut, while campaigners are carrying out door-to-door marketing, appealing to voters with charity – like the delivery of heating fuel to families-in-need. Bahaa himself remains physically absent, however, speaking to potential voters through televised addresses while delegating his childhood friend, Safa Kalo, as his nominee for Parliament.
Although Saad al-Hariri is in financial ruin, Bahaa clearly is not. In 2021, Forbes estimated him to be worth $2.1 billion USD. That wealth enables him to buy allegiance, which is essential to the patron-client system of Middle Eastern politics. Bahaa can also finance a proper election campaign and fund both an online channel and radio station.
All of that comes after his brother was forced to shut down their father’s television, Future TV, and daily newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal. Bahaa is even reaching out to former employees of both outlets, who were dismissed without pay by his brother due to Saad’s financial difficulties.
He is also engaging with prominent anti-Hezbollah personalities, like the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Raii, while demanding implementation of UNSCR Resolution 1701, which calls for monopolizing weapons in the hands of the Lebanese state and keeping Hezbollah away from the Lebanese-Israeli border.
A House Divided
For obvious reasons, Saad is displeased with his brother’s campaign, although he has personally kept quiet regarding his sibling’s forays into politics. Instead, Saad has nudged his trusted friend and ally, and former interior minister, Nouhad Machnouk, to vocalize his concerns, ostensibly in a personal capacity.
Saad Hariri is displeased with his brother’s campaign.
Last January, Machnouk said that Bahaa was coming to “take revenge” on his brother, adding that he was being “parachuted” into the Lebanese political scene, which he knows nothing about. Machnouk also suggested that Bahaa has nothing to offer the people of Lebanon, saying, “His ambitions are completely unrealistic.”
Siniora made a similar comment last month: “There is absolutely no inheritance process [in the Sunni community]. Saad al-Hariri is still present,” he stated, adding that the retired politician can return whenever he wants to. “We will be by his side and with him.”
Under Rafik and Saad al-Hariri, the Future Movement had traditionally been represented in 10 out of 15 Lebanese districts, including Beirut, Sidon, Akkar, Tripoli, Zahle, and the Bekka Valley.
Bahaa knows he cannot take on all these districts from day one. However, he is concentrating on Beirut, Sidon, Akkar, and the Bekka valley which is the traditional powerhouse of Hezbollah. Bahaa is trying to secure a breakthrough by nominating opposition Shiites from civil society groups. The real battle, however, will be in Beirut, the capital.
The Battle for Beirut
It is now certain that none of Saad al-Hariri’s allies in the Future Movement will be running for seats in Beirut. Without money, Future Movement members don’t have the financial means to administer a citywide campaign or to provide welfare and assistance to voters – especially those in dire need of economic assistance.
Ex-Prime Minister Tammam Salam has announced that he too won’t be running for office. Salam is a scion of a ranking Sunni political family that has dominated Beiruti politics since Ottoman times. Nor will his relative Nawaf Salam, a judge at the International Court of Justice, who many had tried pushing into the race, in order to stand up to Hezbollah. Instead of the Salams, Machnouk, and Saad Hariri, a wide assortment of Sunni newcomers has started to emerge, all hailing from prominent Beirut families and eyeing representation in the Lebanese capital.
A wide assortment of Sunni newcomers has started to emerge.
The list includes Ghayda Itani, president of a prominent cancer NGO; Sarah al-Yafi, granddaughter of former prime minister Abdullah al-Yafi; Nouhad Domat, a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB); and Walid Fakhr al-Din, a celebrated civil rights activist.
Also actively contesting Beirut is Fouad Makhzoumi, a self-made tycoon and parliamentarian, who came out with a statement on Twitter shortly after Hariri’s withdrawal last January, promising the Sunni community will not be orphaned. He has traditionally been critical of the Hariris, but equally critical of Hezbollah. On the very same day, he described Hezbollah as a militia that ought to be disarmed, because it threatens the security of Lebanese citizens.
On the other hand, Hezbollah is trying to influence the Sunni vote in other parts of the country, realizing that it cannot take the city of Beirut. In the Bekka Valley, it is campaigning with Abdul Rahim Murad, a wealthy philanthropist, university owner, and former defense minister. In Tripoli, the Shiite group is working with Faisal Karami, a member of a respected political family that produced three of Lebanon’s former prime ministers.
Due to its financial clout, majority support, and military might, Hezbollah will undoubtedly win the Shiite vote – literally uncontested by their allies in the Amal Movement.
However, the real battle will be among Sunnis in Beirut and Christians in Mount Lebanon, who are also presently divided between the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea.