By Ben HubbardJan. 24, 2022
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saad Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon and one of its most prominent politicians for nearly two decades, announced on Monday that he was suspending his political career amid a grave economic collapse that the country’s leaders have failed to stop.
Mr. Hariri, whose party has stood as a counterbalance to the increasing power of Iran-backed militants in the country, said he would not run in upcoming parliamentary elections and called on his political party, the Future Movement, not to run either.
“I am convinced that there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, international confusion, national division, flaring sectarianism and the withering of the state,” Mr. Hariri said in an emotional televised address.
Mr. Hariri’s departure was perhaps the greatest sign yet that the political order that has run Lebanon since the country’s disastrous civil war ended in 1990 is coming undone after repeatedly failing to find solutions to Lebanon’s intensifying social and economic problems.
In recent years, the country’s currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value, impoverishing Lebanese families. A huge explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020 killed more than 200 people and powerful politicians have worked to block the official investigation into how it happened.
Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group and political party, has expanded its arsenal of missiles pointed at Israel and sent fighters to intervene in other regional wars. And the country’s ruling elite, including Mr. Hariri, have repeatedly failed to address the economic weaknesses happening under their noses, much less find ways to blunt their effects on the 5.2 million people living in Lebanon.
“Saad quit when he found out that there is no more hope for the country,” said Mustafa Allouch, the deputy head of Mr. Hariri’s political party. “I’m really worried about the unknown future. Today, I see Lebanon heading toward its demise.”
Mr. Hariri’s exit created a void in Lebanon’s political status quo that left many wondering what sorts of changes, or increased stagnation, it might herald.
He had been seen as the top representative of the country’s Sunni Muslims, one of the three largest religious sects that make up the complex power-sharing system in Lebanon. It was unclear who, if anyone, would replace him in that role.
“His popularity has shrunk, but he was still, until now, the undisputed leader of a good portion of the Sunni community in Lebanon,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Now he’s out, which leaves a huge vacuum.”
Mr. Hariri’s party, which holds 13 seats in Lebanon’s 128-seat Parliament, would not field any candidates in elections scheduled for May, Mr. Allouch said.
And Ms. Yayha said that Lebanon’s other power brokers might decide not to hold elections at all if the Sunnis were perceived to be in disarray.
“You can’t have an entire community not engaged in the elections as such,” she said.
Mr. Hariri is the scion of a political dynasty that has held top government posts since 1992, when his father, Rafik, a charismatic businessman who had become wealthy doing business in the Gulf, returned to Lebanon to enter politics and try to help the country recover from 15 years of civil war.
Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a car-bomb blast in 2005, and the younger Mr. Hariri inherited the political mantle.
Similar to his father, he promoted a vision that was pro-business, close to Western countries like France and the United States and to wealthy Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, which backed him politically and helped Lebanon economically.
That view put him on the other side of a split that has long divided Lebanon from the pro-Iran camp that includes Hezbollah and prioritizes “resistance,” or the struggle against Israel and American influence in the Middle East.
With his slicked back hair and tendency to refer to himself in the third person, Mr. Hariri, 51, was a fixture on the country’s political scene, serving three terms as prime minister, one from 2009 to 2011 and two between 2016 and 2019.
But his standing eroded in recent years as Hezbollah became more powerful and the ruling class he was a part of failed to address the country’s increasing problems.
He served in coalition governments with Hezbollah, even though the Special Tribunal that investigated his father’s assassination implicated members of the group in the plot.
That in turn soured his relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the kingdom’s de facto ruler when his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015.
In 2017, Mr. Hariri was summoned to Saudi Arabia, where Saudi officials forced him to resign as prime minister in a video that was aired on television and showed him using uncharacteristically threatening language toward Iran.
Mr. Hariri’s political allies said he had been coerced, and Arab and Western officials intervened on his behalf with the Saudis. Soon, he was back in Beirut, where he rescinded his resignation, but his relationship with the kingdom never recovered.
Mr. Hariri inherited great wealth and business interests from his father, which financed a splashy lifestyle. But a construction conglomerate in which he owned a stake stopped operations in 2017, and employees of a newspaper and television station that his family owned went months without pay before both businesses shut down. According to Forbes, he was worth $1.5 billion in 2018, but he dropped off its catalog of the world’s richest people the next year.
Allegations of corruption and wastefulness followed him and his political party. (He once gave $16 million as a gift to a bikini model, according to a South African court case.) And when tens of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets in 2019 calling for the ouster of the leaders they accused of having driven the country into the ground through corruption and mismanagement, Mr. Hariri was among those scorned. He and his Cabinet resigned.
President Michel Aoun designated Mr. Hariri again in October 2020 to form a new government, but after nine months and repeated consultations with Lebanon’s other power brokers, he gave up.
In explaining his decision to leave politics on Monday, Mr. Hariri said he had had two goals in politics: to prevent another civil war and to provide a better life for the Lebanese.
He said he had accomplished the first but not the second, and he could not accept that some Lebanese considered him “one of the pillars of the authority that caused the catastrophe and an obstacle to any new political representation that would produce solutions for our country and our people.”
Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting.Read More on Lebanon