Hariri’s travails point to Lebanon’s broken, sectarian system

Resignation postponed: Mystery still shrouds PM’s two-week sojourn in Saudi Arabia

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri's return to Beirut on independence day is ironic as current external interventions in the country's affairs have dramatically diminished its independence.

Mystery still shrouds his two-week sojourn in Saudi Arabia. Having enjoyed Saudi sponsorship for decades, Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, where he announced his resignation without consulting President Michel Aoun, or warning his Future party. The Saudis were accused of kidnapping him.

Hariri claimed he stepped down to protest at Iranian meddling in Lebanon and the involvement of Iran's ally, Hizbullah, in Arab affairs. Iran denied the charge and Hizbullah urged Hariri to return home. When he finally did so on Wednesday, he announced he was postponing his resignation.

Ended political deadlock

Hariri assumed the premiership in December last year under a deal which gave the presidency to Aoun. The deal ended political deadlock which had left Lebanon without a president for more than two years, but compelled Riyadh’s man to cohabit with Hizbullah’s Christian coalition partner.


Hariri left Riyadh on November 18th after French president Emmanuel Macron conferred with Saudi King Salman whose son, Crown Prince Muhammad, is running Saudi affairs.

The prince is said to have become impatient over Hariri's inability to tame Hizbullah, which the prince says is intervening in Bahrain and Yemen as well Syria and Iraq, where Hizbullah fighters have bolstered government forces in the battle against Islamic State and other insurgent groups.

Emboldened by Saudi regional actions, Israel is threatening to wage war on Hizbullah, allegedly to weaken Iran.

En route from Paris to Beirut, Hariri paused in Cairo for consultations with Egypt's president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has tried to reduce regional tensions, and in Nicosia for a meeting with Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades, who has no intention of getting involved. Therefore, in this particular round of interventions, Paris freed Hariri from Riyadh while Cairo was left to calm the Saudis. Nicosia may have provided coffee and cake.

Lebanon constantly falls victim to interference thanks to France, which carved the country out of Greater Syria following the first World War with the aim of granting pro-Paris Catholic Maronite Christians dominion over a strategic stretch of Levantine coast.

Vulnerable to meddling

France also imposed a sectarian power-sharing system specifying that the president and army chief have always to be Maronites, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliamentary speaker a Shia.

This formula has made Lebanon vulnerable to meddling.

Under the National Pact agreed before independence in 1943, Lebanon was barred from alignments with the West and ceding sovereignty to Arab states. Lebanese politicians have violated the pact as often as they have adhered to it.

In 1958, civil war erupted when Egypt and Syria intervened to prevent pro-western president Camille Chamoun from unconstitutionally securing a second term opposed by Sunnis and Druze. The US flew in troops to defuse the situation and oversee a UN-brokered agreement to replace Chamoun with a general acceptable to all.

Maronite determination to maintain their primacy led to the second civil war (1975-90). Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the West and Syria intervened on behalf of the Maronites, who battled secularists seeking an end to the sectarian order. Israel invaded in 1982, installed Bashir Gemayel as president and forced Lebanon to sign a peace treaty.

Hizbullah was formed by Iran to resist Israel, Gemayel was assassinated and the peace treaty revoked under pressure from the Arabs. The 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father, was initially blamed on Syria, then on Hizbullah, ie Iran, creating fresh rounds of meddling.

Although a new power-sharing deal was agreed in 1989, it has not been implemented, as Lebanon’s sectarian politicians have resisted adoption of a secular system which might be less susceptible to meddling.