“Saad, Saad, Saad, Saad, Saad!” the crowd gathered in Martyrs’ Square started chanting on Sunday when Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s outgoing prime minister, showed up at the podium. He was expected to give his usual, staid speech in classical Arabic and was wearing the same style suit and hairdo as with most of his speeches.
But Hariri took off his jacket and his tie, rolled up his shirt sleeves and spoke to his supporters in Lebanese Arabic. “Young men of Lebanon! Young women of Lebanon! We are the youth, we are Lebanese! We want to speak! I came here to speak to you informally using the language of the youth! You are March 14!” he shouted. The crowd went wild.
Whether or not Hariri’s style was successful – his actions attracted jokes from his political adversaries and criticism from some of his more conservative supporters – after his Sunday speech, everyone was left wondering what made the leader of the Future Movement give up his conventional image for a nonconformist, popular attitude.
For Samia Faraj of Qoreitem, Hariri’s speech was a well-received change. “I loved his speech. It was so fresh, so new. He seemed stronger, angry. I like him more now,” she told NOW Lebanon. May Ghosayni, 75, agrees. “Hariri was wonderful. I liked him so much. He was stronger, didn’t seem to care about being threatened anymore,” she said.
But more conservative supporters, such as 59-year-old Ghazi Atriz, believe that “Hariri should stick to a more respectable posture, like his father used to have.” And for other supporters, such as a jewelry shop owner in Nwayreh who wished to remain anonymous, the change came too late. “I don’t know what he can achieve with this now. He’s not the prime minister anymore,” he told NOW Lebanon.
Several March 8 media outlets broadcast jokes and videos making fun of Hariri’s speech. Hezbollah MPs described it as "childish" and said the March 14 leader addressed the crowds as if he was speaking to Tariq al-Jdeideh residents.
“He’s imitating Barack Obama. He wanted to do something new,” joked Ali Swaidat of Dahiyeh. “When somebody’s taking his jacket off, it means he is ready for a fight. Who is he taking his jacket off for? He’s dreaming. He’s standing on the roof saying he can catch the moon.”
But according to protocol and etiquette consultant Sarah Shebaya, “People do expect a politician to have an air of seriousness around him, but it’s also refreshing when someone pushes the envelope a bit and dares being himself,” she told NOW Lebanon. “He wanted to be one of the people, not just be seen as part of the [political] elite of Lebanon. By taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves and not speaking in classical Arabic, he was saying in some way, let's get down to business. I'm one of you,” Shebaya added. She also believes that Hariri’s speech doesn’t mean he will always use the same discourse and attitude.
“Image is very important for people in Lebanon and in the Arab World, where people are constantly judged by the way they look,” she said. “I am sure Hariri is aware of it, because he is always impeccably groomed and attired. But sometimes you must push what is perceived as correct to get your message through. Politicians [across the world] are known to go out and kiss babies and drink tea with the poor [in their electoral campaigns]; in Lebanon they only fix the roads. He wanted to take a different approach.”
She notes that his new attitude is not likely to develop into a trend among Lebanese politicians, as many, even the young ones, still follow the old etiquette of the political elite.
Mustapha Hamoui, author of the blog Beirut Spring, called Hariri’s change of style the “Hariri 2.0.” “He either changed advisors or he just gave way to what he really felt and let go of it all,” he told NOW Lebanon. Hamoui has been commenting on Lebanese politics since 2005 and was often critical of Hariri’s attitude as a prime minister, saying on his blog that he “obviously had a serious communication problem, and that was due to the fact that his youth and style did not sit well with the role of statesman and father-of-the-nation that he tried to laboriously play when he was prime minister.”
He believes the change came at the right time for the young political leader, and that it was impossible before the cabinet fell. “Power obliged him to be more responsible, and by extension more calculated and cautious,” Hamoui said. He added that Hariri’s change of style came as a big surprise for his political adversaries. “[Lebanon] gets its dynamism from the tension that rises between powerful personalities. Hariri just became one,” he said. “To [March 8] that came from absolutely nowhere.”
Nadine Elali contributed reporting to this article