Lebanon's former PM Saad Hariri bows out of political life

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Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, gestures in front of a picture of his late father and former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri, after he gave a speech, at his house in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. Hariri said Monday he is suspending his work in politics and will not run in May's parliamentary elections. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT – Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced Monday he was leaving politics for now and would not run in upcoming parliamentary elections. The decision marks the first time in three decades the powerful Sunni family is out of politics, adding uncertainty in a country grappling with a financial meltdown.

Hariri’s decision had been anticipated but was still a bombshell for many Lebanese. The family has dominated politics in the small country for decades. His exit leaves the Sunni community with no obvious leader for the time being, amid speculation that the abstention of the moderate Hariri could result in hard-line Sunni politicians playing a bigger role in Lebanese politics.

Hariri, a three-time prime minister and current member of parliament, inherited the political leadership from his late father, billionaire businessman Rafik Hariri, who was one of Lebanon’s most powerful and influential politicians after the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

The late Hariri was assassinated in February 2005 in a massive truck bombing in Beirut. Afterward, the family chose Saad Hariri to lead despite the fact that he has an older brother.

Hariri, who was traditionally in the camp opposing Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah, has largely co-existed with the group, forming coalition governments that included Hezbollah. That cost him support from Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, the rival of Iran, over influence and clout in the region.

Now, as he exits from political life, Hariri said he is convinced there is “no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon” in light of Tehran’s growing influence, internal divisions, rising sectarian sentiments and the dysfunction of the state.

He also acknowledged in an emotional televised speech that he had failed to prevent Lebanon from falling into the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Hariri added that he did all he can to prevent civil war in Lebanon by compromising, an apparent reference to forming governments that included the powerful Hezbollah group.

“Therefore, I declare that I will suspend my work in political life and I call upon my family in the Future Movement to take the same step,” Hariri said, in reference to his political group. He held back tears as he spoke and vowed to continue to help people in need.

He added that he will not run in parliamentary elections scheduled for May, neither will members of his Future Movement.

Hariri has been the most powerful Sunni Muslim politician in Lebanon since 2005. He took the post of prime minister three times until he was forced to resign in October 2019 following mass protests against the country’s ruling class after the government imposed a $6 monthly fee for using WhatsApp voice calls. He was appointed to the position a fourth time, but was unable to form a government.

“Despite his political woes, Saad Hariri remains the primary Sunni leader in Lebanon,” Randa Slim, a political analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute said in a Twitter post. “His political exit will create a vacuum,” she said, adding that the scramble for the Sunni community leadership mantle will now intensify.

Hariri, who is mired in financial troubles, has for years played a balancing act in Lebanon’s delicate, sectarian-based political system. He often found himself caught between the region’s two feuding powers — the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

In 2017 Hariri was cast onto an unknown path when he was forced to announce his resignation in a televised statement during a visit to Saudi Arabia, citing Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon. The dramatic move backfired: Hariri returned home and restored his alliance with Hezbollah, losing Saudi backing.

Saudi Arabia, once his main backer and the country where the Hariri family made much of its fortune, distanced itself from the 51-year-old politician.

Relations with Hezbollah worsened in 2020 when a U.N.-backed tribunal sentenced a member of the Hezbollah militant group to life imprisonment for his involvement in Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Hezbollah denies the charges.

Hariri’s decision came despite the fact that several prominent politicians, including Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, tried to convince him to change his mind.

It was not immediately clear what Hariri, whose family currently resides in Paris, would do away from politics. After Hariri’s speech, some of his supporters blocked roads with burning tires to express their anger with his decision.

Hariri was a young political novice when he was thrust into the spotlight following the assassination of his father and had to learn fast. But he lacked his father's political savviness and clout and often fumbled his way through Lebanon's complex and sectarian-based politics.

His business also suffered and in 2019 he had to close a TV network and newspaper owned by his family following a years-long financial struggle.