Hope for Lebanon
Saudi Arabia’s disengagement from Lebanese politics enabled a new president to be elected – and the old idea of coexistence to be revived
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By Abdel Bari Atwan

It was no surprise that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was among the first and most high-profile of world leaders to congratulate former general Michel Aoun on his election by the Lebanese parliament on Monday as the country’s new head of state.

The vote was a long time coming. On no less than 45 previous occasions over the past two years, Lebanon’s notoriously fractious legislature failed to muster even the quorum necessary to consider choosing a new president. The breakthrough, when it came, reflected an unprecedented rapprochement between the leaders of some of the country’s most powerful rival political and sectarian blocs – a welcome example of compromise and consensus in a region riven with political and sectarian conflict.

But it was a victory, above all, for Hizbullah and its local allies, and also for the Syrian regime and its steadfastness in the face of on-going attempts by regional and world powers over the past five years to overthrow it. And it was a direct consequence of the disengagement of Saudi Arabia from Lebanese politics 

“Al-General”, as his supporters call him, won with the parliamentary votes controlled not just by his long-time ally Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, but also of former foes Future Movement leader Saad al-Hariri, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party chieftain Walid Junblatt – thereby securing for his presidency the backing of the larger part of the country’s Shia, Sunni, Christian and Druze political/sectarian elites and their constituencies.

These four heavyweights had starkly different reasons and motives for throwing their lots in with Aoun. But ultimately they have done their country a favour, enabling it to begin reversing the steady disintegration and erosion of its institutions and to inaugurate a new period of coexistence. Who would have imagined that Geagea – who waged a bloody war against Aoun in the early 1990s that ravaged much of Beirut – or Hariri – the self-declared arch-foe of Hizbullah – would have cast their blocs’ ballots in Aoun’s favour at session number 46?

Hariri’s U-turn

This would never have happened, of course, had it not been for the dramatic U-turn performed by Hariri when, after years as head of the ‘March 14’ anti-Hizbullah camp, he announced last month that he would support Aoun for the presidency.

Supporters say he thereby made a great personal and political sacrifice, renouncing the lucrative sponsorship of Saudi Arabia and putting Lebanon’s interests first.

Less charitable observers maintain, not without reason, that he was forced into making that choice. His position within the Future Movement – and its hold over the Sunni public – had weakened dramatically in recent years, and could only be rebuilt by regaining the position of prime minister and the patronage that provides under a deal with Aoun.

More importantly, Hariri had been cut off by the Saudis, or rather by the faction of the Saudi royal family which currently holds the reins of power. His family’s vast business interests in Saudi Arabia – which were used to fund the Lebanese political operation he inherited from his assassinated father Rafik  – were all but bankrupted: the Saudi government withdrew contracts from them and withheld overdue payments for work already done, forcing Hariri-owned companies in both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to lay off thousands of workers and leave others unpaid for months.

The Saudis used to refer to the Hariris – who hold dual Lebanese-Saudi citizenship and made their fortune under royal patronage in the kingdom – as their ‘sons’.   With their ability to buy supporters and allies, they were Riyadh’s principal agents of influence in Lebanon. The Saudi decision to abandon them is of huge significance.

It is partly a result of Saad’s personal failure to match his father’s political prowess and build a winning coalition in Lebanon that would put the country in line with Saudi regional policies.

But it also reflects Saudi Arabia’s own straitened financial circumstances. The collapse of oil prices, high levels of royal profligacy, and the huge cost of waging wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq – and proxy wars elsewhere against Iran – have drained Saudi coffers. The government has been drawing down its once-vast financial reserves at a frightening pace.  It has resorted to borrowing from domestic and international banks just to balance its current budget, and imposed austerity measures on its citizens. Saudi Arabia is on the verge of bankruptcy, and in the process it is progressively losing the power to use financial inducement to shape or influence regional politics – the only real power it has ever had.

In this context, Lebanon has ceased to be affordable. Billions of Saudi dollars  were ploughed into it over the years in the hope of turning it into a client state. But the endeavour failed, and Riyadh has evidently opted to cut its losses and give up. Hariri, who knows the Saudis and their way of thinking better than most, may have had an early inkling that this transformation was underway, and opted to abandon the sinking ship.

It is telling that Lebanon managed to achieve its political breakthrough as soon as the Saudis withdrew from its political scene – affirming that they had been a principal obstructive element all along

Road to Recovery

It would be wrong, however, to downplay the domestic factors. The endless deadlock over the presidency deepened the profound disillusionment felt by many Lebanese about the attitudes and antics of their political class. People were despairing about the present and fearful about the future. By opting to forge a new partnership among themselves, put the country back onto the path of consensus and break with the established norm of petty manouevring and name-calling, the mainstays of the political/sectarian establishment were seeking to rehabilitate their own status as much as the integrity of their country.  Nevertheless, the vote remains a victory for Lebanon and its people, and a promising step on a possible road to road to recovery

Celebrations are also doubtless being held in Damascus, where Aoun is viewed – in the words of one of President Bashar al-Asad’s top aides —  as ‘an honourable enemy who became an honourable friend.’ His victory will be deemed as enabling the restoration, to at least some extent, of Syria’s former influence in Lebanon – with no significant challengers for the foreseeable future.

In the address he made while taking the oath of office, President Aoun promised to keep Lebanon out of the conflicts raging in the region and prevent them from affecting it, to wage pre-emptive war against terrorism, to resist Israeli occupation and threats by all possible means, to rebuild the state and to adopt policies to reverse the downhill trajectory of the economy.

This and much else of what he had to say was commendable, though it is easier said than done – especially the part about steering clear of regional conflicts.   The economic challenges facing Lebanon are daunting on their own. With the country  $70 billion in debt and struggling to pay the interest, Aoun would do well simply to avoid exacerbating the problem – especially after Lebanon was cut off financially by Saudi Arabia and is Gulf allies. The economy is in crisis. Aid flows have dried up, tourism has been decimated and the country has been inundated with refugees form neighbouring Syria.

There are also plenty of domestic political spoilers lying in wait, notably Parliament Speaker and head of the Amal Movement Nabih Berri – who along with his followers in parliament cast blank ballots in the presidential vote. Berri’s jealously-guarded powers of patronage stand to be undermined by a Aoun presidency, and he has made no secret of his disdain for the new president or his intention to make life difficult of him – especially when it comes to forming the new government. This is supposed to be headed by Hariri under the deal he stuck with Aoun under-written by Nasrallah, but will be no easy process.

Opponents of the deal within the Future Movement, including the Sunni Islamist groups it took under its wing, will also challenge and try to foil the new dispensation.

Yet the fact remains that the Lebanese, renowned for their enterprise and ingenuity, have managed to do something remarkable – bring to power a home-made president rather than one installed by fiat of external powers, and breathe new life into the ideas of consensus coexistence when some had been predicting that their state would collapse amid the surrounding turmoil. They deserve to be whole-heartedly congratulated for that.

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