Sunday, 20 May 2012

Saad Hariri: One Year Leading by Remote Control

Saad Hariri appears on a giant screen during a televised speech in Biel Center, Downtown Beirut. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

Published Saturday, May 19, 2012

Scene One: Saad Hariri put a piece of property up for sale in the Barbir area. According to sources close to the Saudi embassy in Beirut, the property forms part of a plot of land the Saudis want to turn into housing projects for the people of Beirut.

The sale of the land is not particularly noteworthy. Its value is merely pocket change for Hariri. The surprise lies in the names of those who stepped in to buy it.

They are the president of Riyadi (Sporting) Club, Hisham Jaroudi, the “republic’s contractor” and businessman, Jihad al-Arab (brother of the head of Hariri’s personal security detail), and the former head of Future TV, Nadim al-Munla.

All three had built or expanded their wealth under the Hariri family mantle. Ultimately, the land went to al-Arab for around US$37 million.

Scene Two: Early last month, Salwa Siniora, sister of former prime minister Fouad Siniora, was appointed as head of the Hariri Foundation. A confidant of Saad Hariri commented that nothing says “Hariri’s out” more than “Siniora’s in.”

Scene Three: A young Future Bloc MP starts a discussion with “friends” on Facebook. A young man from Bekaa immediately replies, “As a Sunni, I am no longer convinced that those in the Future Movement represent me. We only have two representatives today: Saleh al-Machnouk and [Salafi] Sheikh [Ahmad] al-Assir.”

Dozens of young supporters of Future Movement are repeating this statement in Tariq al-Jdideh, Central Bekaa and even in Saida. They say so directly in interviews and on social media.

Scene Four: Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, imam of the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Saida, attacks Saad Hariri personally and denounces him as a total failure, even at skiing. He said it publicly in the mosque then repeated it in an interview on LBC. Not one Future supporter came out in protest, even online.

Scene Five: A member of the Syrian opposition met a “Hariri” activist prior to the Future Movement May 6 festival, which commemorated the May 2008 armed battles between March 8 and March 14 supporters. He asked who would be speaking. The Lebanese activist replied saying it was president Hariri. The Damascene activist replied, “This will demoralize the revolution.”

Scene Six: The brother of detained Shadi Mawlawi says that if his brother is not released there will be an escalation in Tripoli. When asked to describe the escalation, he said he will discuss it with the city’s sheikhs.

He did not mention the Future Movement or any of its officials. He did not even think of Hariri, who had released a statement on the first day of the clashes. The Twitter pronouncement did not make an impression on the capital of the North.

But while the street ignored Hariri’s statement, this did not stop him from being considered the main Sunni authority by the political leadership [of the country].

The army did not enter Tripoli until after they received the official “Sunni” cover of PM Najib Mikati and its popular counterpart from Saad Hariri.

The scenes described above summarize to a large extent the situation of the Future Movement and its president who a few days back completed a year of absence from Lebanon. Back then, Sheikh Saad packed his bags and left without saying goodbye to friends and loved ones.

He did not say he was emigrating nor did he say when he will come back. Even a year later, he has yet to explain the reasons behind his long absence from Lebanon.

Hariri is not completely tied up by the continued presence of the Syrian regime in power, Hezbollah’s weapons, his own financial situation which deteriorated in the last few years, nor his health after he broke his leg skiing in the Alps.

He once spoke of vague security reasons. But people in his circle are divided between the financial trouble excuse and the health reasons with some saying he will come back to Wadi Abu Jamil, the area in downtown Beirut where his residence is located, as soon as he recovers from his Alps injury.
In brief, Hariri does not have a clear date of return. He is more like a missing person, rather than an immigrant.

In Search of a Leader

Many things changed for Hariri as a leader in the past year.

Many of his supporters are no longer shy about scathingly criticizing him. Following his latest televised speech in Martyr’s Square in Beirut, a Future Movement asked one of the Future MPs she saw at a downtown restaurant whether the speech was real or a fantasy.

Hariri’s “ambiguous” performance - to borrow a description used by people close to Hariri and active in his movement - is leading a large section of his audience into a constant state of searching for a leader.

Sometimes they find this leader in the head of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea, other times in Sheikh al-Assir or in Saleh al-Machnouk and others who have a clear and confrontational rhetoric, especially against Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

In the meantime, Hariri has become insecure about the situation. That’s why he vetoed speeches by front row leaders in the March 14 festival in Biel. According to the same sources above, he did not want Geagea, who is physically there, to appear as the leader of the “Cedar Revolutionaries” when Hariri is absent.

Inside the Future Movement, the missing president is considered as a “chided” loved one by his supporters who “are now more sympathetic to him as a person who cannot handle responsibility.”
With the original president absent, political leadership falls to Fouad Siniora. He runs the parliamentary bloc meetings, communicates with allies and negotiates various issues with them.

Siniora’s job description has expanded to include foreign relations, especially with Egypt and Turkey and some in Saudi Arabia.

As an organization, the Future Movement’s woes have more to do with the lack of money rather than Hariri’s absence. The chronic frailty of the young movement leaves its officials with a lot more words than action.

Externally, the effect of Hariri’s absence on his source of power is no less grave than its impact inside Lebanon.

The political leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan was betting on Hariri before he headed the government and moved to the Grand Serail.

Today, following the events that unfolded in Lebanon and in spite of Erdogan’s vocal support of Hariri’s position on Syrian president Bashar Assad, a member of the Turkish PM’s team saw it fit to say in a private session that “we were wrong to bet on a failure like Saad Hariri.”

KSA’s Lebanon Dossier

In the Saudi Kingdom, something has changed. People close to the Saudi embassy [in Lebanon] speak about a committee set up by Riyadh to oversee the Lebanon dossier. It includes the Foreign Minister, a representative of the Interior Minister, the King’s son Abdulaziz, the current Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, the former ambassador Abdulaziz Khoja and someone from the secret service.

The president of the National Security Council Bandar Bin Sultan sometimes attends or sends a representative. The committee presents its recommendations about Lebanon in general and the conditions of the Sunni sect to the Saudi king.

Someone who knows most committee members says that none of them like Hariri or trust his ability to run Lebanon and Sunni affairs. They receive dozens of reports from “sources” in Lebanon. Most complain about Hariri’s performance and absence.

Some in the committee trust Siniora’s handling of affairs. Those who know his relationship with Riyadh say he might be the only person who does not speak ill of Hariri in Saudi Arabia.
This should not mean that Riyadh will abandon Hariri, especially after it provided him with some financial stability. There is a reality that cannot be ignored; people are still drawn to Rafic Hariri’s son, in spite of the recent “Salafi mutiny” in the Tripoli.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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