By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
The Secretary-General of Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-militia, Hassan Nasrullah, gave a major speech Sunday in the wake of the resignation of prime minister Saad Hariri. Nasrullah characterized this step as a Saudi move dictated to Hariri by Riyadh.
Lebanon’s three big religio-ethnic groups are Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. By gentleman’s agreement dating from the 1940s, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite.
The Christians are the wealthiest group and the Shiites the poorest, on the whole.
So Saad Hariri is a Sunni. His father, Rafiq, went off to Saudi Arabia in his youth and became a billionaire. Then during the Civil War in Lebanon, in the 1980s, the Saudis sent Hariri back to Beirut as their representative. He helped negotiate an end to the war and became a long-serving prime minister himself before being assassinated in 2005.
Saad is as connected to the Saudis as his father was, though reportedly he has run through much of his inherited fortune and does not have nearly the resources that his father had.
Saad Hariri became prime minister in 2016 as part of a national unity government. Lebanon has experienced renewed social friction because of the neighboring Syrian Civil War. Lebanese Shiites and Christians have largely sided with Bashar al-Assad as a secular ruler, while Lebanese Sunnis for the most part supported the revolutionaries. When in 2013 Hizbullah went over the border and directly intervened in Syria militarily, it caused a shock wave through Lebanese society. Some militant fundamentalist Sunnis, called Salafis, based in Sidon, actually went over the border to fight on the rebel side.
So the national unity government of the last year and more was intended to tamp down those severe tensions, since older Lebanese remember the civil war and don’t want another one.
But the great Middle East Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran has pitched the question for Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Hariri see Hizbullah as an Iranian cat’s paw, and Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been confronting Iran as directly as he can without starting a war. So if he did tell Hariri to resign, it was in order to deprive the pro-Iranian Lebanese government of legitimacy.
Israel is also unhappy with the new prominence of Hizbullah, given that it more or less won the Syrian civil war by intervening. Israel wants it cut down to size, and it is not impossible that they are coordinating with the Saudis to set Lebanon up for an intervention of some sort.
Nasrullah said he was surprised by Hariri’s sudden move. He maintained that until recently, Hariri had reported at cabinet meetings that Saudi Arabia wants a stable Lebanon and backed the national unity government, and was pledging aid money for Lebanon.
Then Hariri recently went back to Riyadh, Nasrullah said, and this time he did not come back. His resignation was dictated to him by the Saudis and prerecorded so as to play on the Saudi-owned Alarabiya network, based in Dubai. It was not in his personal style. It wasn’t put out first on Hariri’s own network, Future TV (al-Mustaqbal). Nasrullah maintains that Hariri phoned his resignation in to President Michel Aoun from Saudi Arabia. So the Hizbullah leader is implying that something changed in the politics of the royal family all of a sudden, and they imposed this resignation on Lebanon through their proxy.
Nasrullah insists that Hizbullah did not desire this resignation. He said cabinet members from his party met regularly with Hariri and sought compromise on major issues.
He said that the way the resignation was carried out reflected the methods and style of intervention in Lebanese affairs practiced by the Saudi leadership, which is ironic, he said, since they are always accusing others (i.e. Iran) of such intervention.
He blamed Hariri’s move on a fierce struggle for power within the Saudi royal family.
He called for calm and an avoidance of recriminations inside Lebanon.
Lebanon is a country of 4.5 million citizens and another 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Some of the refugees are Christians and Shiites, but most are Sunni Arab and if they stayed they would alter the balance of demographic power among Lebanon’s competing “confessions” (religions and sects). As the Syrian war winds down, though I suspect the refugees will mostly go back home.
The US State Department quotes the independent research organization, Statistics Lebanon,to the effect that
28% of Lebanese citizens are Sunnis
28% are Shiites of various sorts
35.5% are Christian
5.2% are Druze (an esoteric offshoot of Shiite Islam that is independent)
I don’t know if these percentages are correct and it isn’t clear whether they are global projections or just adults of voting age. My guess is that at the level of five-year-olds the percentages would look very different, with Christians more like 25% and Shiites more like a third.
In any case, Hariri’s resignation has caused a crisis in Lebanon. The Sunni mufti or jurisconsult says that no other Sunnis will be willing to serve as prime minister, in solidarity with Hariri. This is too sweeping a conclusion since Hariri has enemies and some of them would love to succeed him.
Related video added by Juan Cole