The June 2009 swearing in as prime minister of Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni Future Current movement, marks a turning point, the end of a period of exceptional domestic political turbulence and regional tensions that began with the 2005 murder of his father, Rafic; led to institutional paralysis; and culminated with the violent May 2008 showdown between government and opposition. It also presents the new leader with a host of novel challenges. The man who took the helm of a once deeply divided Sunni community must discard much of what enabled his rise, if he is to succeed now that he is in power. With Hizbollah, the principal Shiite movement, he must move away from the sectarianism that has become Lebanon’s political stock-and-trade. The Future Current should initiate the process of becoming a more genuine, institutionalised party, breaking from the clientelism that will otherwise inhibit the prime minister’s transition from community leader to statesman. And Hariri must continue to navigate the difficult normalisation with Syria, overcoming deep mistrust among his constituency toward Damascus.
Upon his father’s assassination, Saad inherited an almost impossible task. Rafic Hariri was larger than life: at once successful businessman, diplomat, politician and statesman. As Lebanon awoke from years of a bloody civil war, he strove to be the nation’s saviour. He was not without his critics or his failings. Many chastised his propensity to mingle private dealings and public affairs. But few challenged his leadership qualities or his ability to rise – for the most part – above confessional politics and to juggle contradictory international relations.
In death as in life, Rafic was an outsized character whose influence extended far beyond Lebanon’s borders. Syria, widely viewed as responsible for the murder, faced intense international pressure. Unprecedented demonstrations forced the withdrawal of its troops after an almost 30-year presence. His death stirred deep, lingering Sunni resentments and anxieties: anger at Syria’s heavy-handed domination and unease stemming from a sense of vulnerability. The result was a massive, overwhelming instinct of communal solidarity among Sunnis, who rallied around Rafic’s son and dramatically shifted national, regional and international alliances. The community joined forces with its historical foes, anti-Syrian Christian parties. It turned against a traditional ally, Damascus, now seeing its struggle with Syria as a conflict between two incompatible visions for the country. And, for the first time in its history, it turned toward the West, partners in a perceived life-or-death battle against Syria, Hizbollah and Iran.
Of all, the most striking transformation in Sunni attitudes since 2005 has been the exacerbation of sectarian feelings and hostility toward Shiites, nurtured by deepened regional sectarian divisions following the fall of the Iraqi regime. Tensions existed in the past, but for the most part they had remained dormant or, if expressed, quickly contained. There were several turning points: Hariri’s assassination; subsequent expressions of pro-Syrian sentiment by Hizbollah and Amal; the 2006 war with Israel, which many Sunnis blamed on Hizbollah and which highlighted the Shiite movement’s troublesome military might; and, finally, Hizbollah’s swift May 2008 takeover of the capital, which Sunnis suffered as a humiliating defeat.
The net effect was to solidify the Future Current’s hegemony over the Sunni community and Hariri’s control over the Future Current. Stunned by Hizbollah’s decision to turn its weapons inwards, Sunnis rallied as one behind the movement. Dissent was tantamount to betrayal. In June 2009, the Future Current – buoyed by a large Sunni turnout – triumphed in the parliamentary elections. The vote, a reflection of a powerful communal solidarity, signalled Hariri’s emergence as the virtually unchallenged Sunni leader.
But the Future Current’s clear victory also contributed to important domestic and regional changes. Syrian acceptance of the results and Hariri's selection as prime minister removed important impediments to a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, which had begun earlier that year. Riyadh encouraged normalisation of ties between Syria and Lebanon, notably by pressing Saad Hariri to visit Damascus – a trip brimming with emotional and political significance. Once selected as prime minister, Saad reached out to the opposition, which responded in kind. He now leads a national unity government whose ability to function will depend on consensus.
Ruling successfully will require that he takes this evolution a step further. More will be needed to reverse sectarianism and deepen the process of Syrian-Lebanese normalisation. Hariri will have to relinquish his de facto position as Sunni leader and devolve that role to a more institutionalised Future Current – in effect turning it into a party with clear and accountable decision-making mechanisms, an identifiable political platform and professional cadres – as well as to reformed and strengthened religious bodies better able to manage the community and prevent a radical drift. In the same vein, he gradually will need to break with the type of community-based, patron-client style of politics that, over the past five years, the Future Current has more fully embraced.
Competition from Sunni rivals and loss of hegemonic control almost certainly will be one consequence, but – assuming a lessening of confessional tensions – it also is an inevitable one. If the goal is to stabilise Lebanon, promote its welfare and avoid any sectarian backsliding, it is a price Saad Hariri will have to pay. It also would be the best way for him to honour the most promising elements of his father’s legacy.
Beirut/Brussels, 26 May 2010