Why Is Saad Hariri Back in Charge of Lebanon?

An entrenched sectarian political system, self-serving leaders leftover from the civil war, and a protest movement more ambitious than organized seem to have set Lebanon’s revolution back where it started.

A Lebanese protester
A Lebanese man raises a national flag as the Revolution Fist, the symbol of Lebanon’s October 2019 uprising, burns after being torched during clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut's Martyrs’ Square on Oct. 21. -/AFP via Getty Images

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is back by unpopular demand, pledging to do better this time (his fourth as premier) as Lebanon reels from its months of political paralysis, its worst financial crisis in decades, the coronavirus pandemic, and the aftermath of the deadly Aug. 4 explosion at the port of Beirut.

On Thursday, a slim majority of the Lebanon’s members of parliament agreed to have Hariri return as prime minister-designate and form a new cabinet—which will be his first tough test. His return will not be welcomed by the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who have been in the streets in protest since last October, when they secured their biggest victory by forcing Hariri’s resignation. But after a year of dashed hopes, protesters are greeting his return with more despair than anger.

Wait, Hariri resigned a year ago in answer to the popular protests. How is his return supposed to be the solution to Lebanon’s problems, which have only gotten worse since then?

Hariri is back as prime minister in large part because there’s not really anybody else whom Lebanon’s political parties would agree on. Hassan Diab, who succeeded Hariri last fall, resigned himself after the August explosion, which killed almost 200 people and was widely seen as the result of government incompetence and corruption. After him came Mustapha Adib, then (and now again) Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany. But he couldn’t form a new cabinet and stepped down as prime minister late last month. 

The biggest cabinet hurdle was the post of finance minister, a powerful position, as financial signoff can influence the work of other ministries. Lebanon’s Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, wanted the post, but there was resistance from other groups. Hariri is believed to be more likely to accommodate that demand—and indeed, while Hezbollah declined to nominate anyone for prime minister, it has said it won’t stand in the way of forming a new government. 

At the same time, though, Hariri has promised to assemble a cabinet of “nonpartisan specialists” with a “mission to implement the economic, financial and administrative reforms” the country desperately needs. Of course, that’s the same promise Adib and Diab made before him. 

Hariri is an old hand in Lebanon’s political game and more likely to accommodate the demands of the traditional political parties than Adib was, but success in forming a cabinet is not guaranteed. It will be a balancing act of political interests. The process could go on for months. If it’s unsuccessful, Lebanon could see its fourth prime minister in less than a year and more delays on its road to recovery.

But there must be other options, right?

Other names were floated to head the next government, but the pool is limited. Under Lebanon’s sectarian political system, the prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, just as the president has to be a Christian and the speaker of the house a Shiite Muslim. Then, he has to be seen as acceptable to most of the sect-based political parties. Hariri’s own Future Movement, the Shiite Amal Movement, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party all voted in favor of Hariri’s return, but the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun and the Christian Lebanese Forces did not. In the end, Hariri passed with a slim majority—just 65 of the 128 seats. 

That sectarian political system breeds the very sort of dynastic approach to politics that brought the protesters in the streets in the first place. This week, a two-year-old clip of the son of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt went viral, in which he says that he didn’t want to be in politics, but it’s a “family business.” And that’s true across sectarian lines.

Hariri’s father, Rafik, was previously prime minister, too, for 10 years, but he was killed by Hezbollah in 2005. Saad Hariri’s brother Bahaa has also been floated as a future prime minister. The son-in-law of current President Aoun was foreign minister until last year, and so on.

In a way, Lebanon’s civil war of 1975 to 1990 still casts the biggest shadow over the political landscape. Lebanon’s political system—the very thing the protesters were up in arms about—has been dominated by the same sect-based political parties and often the same rulers, many of them former wartime militia leaders and their relatives. 

If protesters brought down Hariri once before, how are they reacting now?

Hariri’s resignation—just weeks after the protests started last October—was the most substantial victory for the protest movement and gave it momentum. For months afterward, every time names associated with Lebanon’s old guard were floated for government posts, protesters headed back out to the streets. 

But as of late Thursday, demonstrations were small, and there is a sense of defeat among many who saw their calls to end corruption, mismanagement, and the sectarian political system doused with tear gas. Hariri’s return almost exactly one year later suggests to many protesters that it was all for naught. Hassan Safsouf, who took part in the protests starting last fall, instead spent Thursday completing an English exam, as part of the process of emigrating to Canada. He says he doesn’t see the point in going to the streets anymore and just wants to leave the country.

“The political decisions are not taken by the Lebanese people. The decisions are taken by the corrupt leaders,” said Safsouf, walking in Beirut’s Gemmayze neighborhood with two friends—both of whom are also trying to emigrate.

But if so many poured into the streets demanding change, how is Lebanon back where it started?

Protesters marched under the slogan “killon yani killon,” or “everyone means everyone,” a shot at the entire political class—of which Hariri is very much an exemplar. The key demand of the protests has been the fall of the system, not just individual leaders, but that hasn’t happened, and it’s not clear what would replace it.

Even if new elections were held tomorrow, results would probably vary little from the current parliament, experts say. Independents outside of the established political class would probably pick up a handful of seats in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament, but not enough to fundamentally change things. 

And that stasis is itself a reflection of the end of the civil war. The Taif Agreement, which ended the fighting, only further entrenched the country’s sectarian system as warlords divvied up power to secure their own interests. It’s a system that is now deeply entrenched in almost every aspect of social, political, and economic life.

Many Lebanese still feel dependent on warlords-turned-politicians for safety, whether from other sects or other countries, as well as economic sustenance. Basic foodstuffs, government jobs, education, and health care—all even more important now due to the country’s economic collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic—are doled out as political patronage rather than as state services. That keeps people deeply reliant on their parties and ends up entrenching the leaders in power.

Will the fourth time be the charm for Hariri as prime minister?

Unlikely. The first task for Hariri will be to form a cabinet, no easy task in Lebanese politics, where decisions are made through political wrangling and horse-trading to appease the country’s political elites. All of Lebanon’s sect-based political parties will need to be accommodated, in what is more like a balancing act than a democratic process. Protesters say the country’s leaders negotiate for their own interests, not what’s good for the country or even their own constituents.

The key task of the new government—if and when it is formed—will be to implement economic and financial reforms to meet the conditions of France and the International Monetary Fund, needed to unlock billions of dollars in badly needed aid. That could avert complete collapse in the short term but would not solve Lebanon’s structural problems. It’s got one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world and is highly reliant on imports, including food, that it can no longer afford as the currency has lost 80 percent of its value since last fall. Half of Lebanese are now below the poverty line, and reforms will likely mean removing the subsidies on fuel and bread. 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker told reporters Thursday: “Whatever government comes next must commit to and have the ability to implement reforms that can lead to economic opportunity, better governance, and an end to endemic corruption.” Jan Kubis, the United Nations special coordinator for Lebanon, warned the country’s leaders not to “count on miracles, foreign elections, or external donors—the rescue must start in Lebanon, by Lebanon.”

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.