New Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri calls for unity

The country’s system creates power-sharing among the main confessional communities

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri takes a selfie with journalists at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri takes a selfie with journalists at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

 

Saad Hariri has called for a national unity government after being named Lebanese prime minister, pledging to include all political blocs, even those that abstained.

The Lebanese Future Movement leader (46) was nominated for the position by president Michel Aoun (81), three days after Aoun’s election, and confirmed by vote by 110 of Lebanon’s 127 deputies.

The Saudi-born son of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, the new prime minister served in this post from November 2009 to June 2011 when his unity government collapsed after Shia Hizbullah ministers withdrew.

The improbable pairing of Aoun, a Maronite Catholic backed by pro-Iran Hizbullah, with Hariri, a Sunni Muslim supported by Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, was an awkward trade-off reached at a time when Lebanon has become ungovernable and Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in sharp competition for regional influence.

Perceived as weak

Hariri had the backing of the two largest parliamentary parties – his own and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Shia parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who had initially opposed Hariri’s nomination, switched to support him.

Hizbullah, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Baath Party refused to back Hariri, suggesting they could make it difficult for him to form a unity cabinet – or any cabinet.

Supporters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, these three parties oppose Hariri because of his backing for anti-Assad militants who receive Saudi financial and military aid with the aim of toppling Assad.

Hariri is seen by many Lebanese as a weak figure. He has spent most of his time in Riyadh and Paris since his father’s assassination, which he blamed on Syria. He has been compromised by divisions in his own party over his decision to back Aoun, who commands majorities of Maronites and Shias, the latter thanks to his alliance with Hizbullah.

The process of forming a government could take months, prolonging uncertainty and undermining Hariri’s position. If and when he forms a government, Hariri will have to tackle the country’s financial woes; the socio-economic burden of 1.14 million UN registered Syrian refugees; and an 18-month refuse disposal crisis.

Vote buying

He will also have to find a “fair” model for long overdue parliamentary elections, his most challenging task. The most recent poll, held in 2009, was corrupted by vote buying – with offers of $1,000 in some constituencies – as well as being unfair, as votes in some constituencies had more weight than in others, leading to demands for clean elections and equality among voters.

Both presidential and prime ministerial elections were carried out in conformity with Lebanon’s pre-independence 1943 national pact, which provides for power-sharing among the country’s main confessional communities with Maronites holding the presidency, Sunnis the prime ministry and Shias the parliamentary speakership.

This sclerotic system perpetuates divisive sectarianism and depends on feudal-familial constituencies where sons, like Hariri, inherit the political mantles of fathers and grandfathers.

Outgoing prime minister Tammam Salam is the son of six times premier Saeb Salam, while Aoun’s chief rival was Suleiman Frangieh, named after his grandfather who served as president from 1970-76.

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