Alex Rowell

Hariri back with mission to stabilize, say analysts

A handout picture released on August 8, 2014 by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri (L) shaking hands with a member of the guard of honour as he arrives at the Grand Sedail governmental palace in Beirut for his meeting with current Prime Minister Tammam Salam at on August 8, 2014 upon his return to Lebanon after three years in self-imposed exile (AFP Photo/HO/Dalati and Nohra)

After a more than three-year absence from Lebanon on grounds of personal security concerns, Future Movement leader and former Prime Minister MP Saad Hariri took the country by surprise Friday morning with an unannounced return, appearing suddenly on live television feeds making his way to a meeting with Prime Minister Tammam Salam in downtown Beirut.


His return – which he says will be a “long” one – has been hailed by Future officials and their March 14 allies as a significant boost for Lebanon’s fraying stability, and a timely boon for the moderate and pluralistic majority of the country’s Sunni community at the expense of a small but growing extremist minority.


Yet the exact reasons for the move at this particular time remain a subject of debate. Officially, Hariri has said he came back to “address the implementation” of a recent $1bn donation to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) by Saudi Arabia, the principal regional backer of the Future Movement. Future official Rashid Fayed expanded on this, implicitly putting it in the context of Saudi’s reportedly broader efforts to crack down on regional jihadist militancy in recent months.


“Hariri is a party in the war against terror, and his return was engineered at the international, Arab and regional levels” in that capacity, said Fayed.


Triggering this initiative, several analysts told NOW, were the recent clashes in the eastern border town of Arsal between the LAF and foreign jihadists, which raised fears – both domestically and internationally – of a potentially dramatic destabilization in Lebanon along the lines seen in Iraq in June. Significantly, the rhetoric of Future and other March 14 officials regarding Hariri’s return has emphasized the notion of combating extremism within the Sunni community itself, rather than combating Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, or any other of March 14’s traditional foes.


“It seems he came back now because of the major incidents happening in Lebanon,” said Hazem Saghieh, a widely-published political commentator. “I think the international community pushed him to come back because it is not acceptable that he stays away with all this chaos.”


The urgency of the Arsal situation and what it could portend may also have convinced Hariri’s traditional domestic opponents, Hezbollah and the pro-Damascus March 8 bloc, along with their regional backers that his presence in Lebanon was desirable, thus easing his fears concerning security (five Hezbollah members stand accused by a UN-backed international tribunal of carrying out the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri).


“[Perhaps] the problems that led him to stay away for three years have been resolved,” said Hussam Itani, a columnist at Al-Hayat. “If so, that would be a very positive thing; akin to a Saudi-Iranian agreement.”


Quite apart from security considerations, however, there has been talk, including from officials such as Telecoms Minister Butrus Harb, that Hariri’s return could be intended to reinvigorate efforts to end an 11-week-long presidential vacuum. How exactly Hariri’s physical presence would substantially change the dynamics on this front, however, remains unclear.


Indeed, some observers also questioned the extent to which Hariri could influence the security situation, either, no matter how well-meaning his intentions.


“I don’t know what it will change, I’m very skeptical,” said Mosbah al-Ahdab, a former Tripoli MP with the independent Democratic Renewal (“Tajaddod”) Movement.


“It is impossible to boost Sunni moderation as long as Hezbollah has weapons,” said Saghieh. “As long as Hezbollah still has weapons and security incidents are happening, the Sunni community will continue to be drawn to extremism.”


To this, Future MP Mustafa Alloush countered that “part of combating terrorism is political,” arguing Hariri’s political and religious moderation would have a positive influence on the Sunni community at large.


“He felt that he should be here in order to try to reconcile and guide the community again toward the essentially pluralistic and non-extremist point of view that the Future Movement represents.”


Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Hariri surprised the country Friday with an unannounced return after more than three years away. (AFP Photo/HO/Dalati and Nohra)

I think the international community pushed him to come back because it is not acceptable that he stays away with all this chaos.”