Thursday, August 30, 2007

Should we worry about the Hariri camp?

Should we worry about the Hariri camp?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Half of politics is being there; the other half is knowing what to do once you are there. Many of the better-known figures of the Future movement, including Saad Hariri, have neither been in Lebanon in recent weeks nor have they been particularly adept at advancing their agenda when they are. It's dawning on a number of groups in the majority that the Hariri camp may be the strongest yet also the most vulnerable component in the March 14 coalition, and that the repercussions of this paradox will determine what happens in Lebanon for years to come.

Let's start with vacation. That Hariri and his parliamentarians are entitled to one is obvious. That they feel their lives are threatened in Beirut is natural after the murder of Walid Eido. But spending several weeks out of the country at so sensitive a moment, much of that time at the opulent Hotel de Paris in Monaco, is foolish politics. Soldiers are still being killed in Nahr al-Bared, many of their families stalwarts of Hariri support in the Akkar; conditions in the country are uncertain, with people growing increasingly exasperated with basic tribulations such as power outages; and Lebanon's liberal future is being decided at this very moment, with Hariri and his parliamentary retinue nowhere to be seen. You don't build a durable political movement on poorly-timed absences.

There are several problems confronting what can broadly be called the Hariri movement. First, there is a personal disconnect between Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, reflecting a disconnect between the movement and the state. The government has seemed devoid of vigor in recent months, partly because of its ambiguous relationship with the majority, particularly the Hariri entourage. The symbiosis between the Hariri movement and state institutions, a cornerstone of Rafik Hariri's power, is today lacking. Saad Hariri should know that without a state project to buttress his efforts, these efforts will falter. The Hariri strategy always transcended patron-client relationships to encompass a national vision (albeit a flawed one at times), but Saad Hariri doesn't seem to be offering fresh ideas about how the state should develop. Most Sunnis support him, but without a long-term plan to consolidate that support by anchoring it in the state, the Hariris will lose ground to others.

This is evident in the North. What is being done to lay down a network of support in the Akkar, to ensure the region doesn't slip deeper into the marginalization that has long been its destiny? The Hariri camp doesn't seem to realize that the Akkar, because of the fighting in Nahr al-Bared, is going through a transformational experience. Young men and their families are paying a heavy price on behalf of the state. Will the state respond in kind? And if the state comes up short, will it not be up to Saad Hariri to fill the vacuum so as to secure his own political survival?

For the moment little decisive is being done on the ground. The issuing of scholarships, for example, has reportedly been suspended by the Hariris, which means that youths from the region are seeing their horizons contract. The people of the Akkar are also surveying what is happening elsewhere in the country - in fact just over the mountains in the Baalbek-Hermel district, where Hizbullah is growing ever more powerful militarily. There is a combustible mix there. If the Akkar Sunnis, like the equally poor Sunnis of Dinniyeh, are offered no improvement in their lives, they will become - even more so than today - vulnerable to mobilization by Sunni Islamist groups, some of them violent, who will play on a fear of Shiites. Without rural Sunni support, the Future movement would lose its vital force nationally, and its reservoir of mass backing.

Saad Hariri is also not around at an essential moment in Lebanese history: the lead-up to the most important presidential election Lebanon has ever had to face. In recent months, the Aounists have managed to limit Hariri's input into Christian politics, including the choice of a new president. They have done so by playing on Christian fear of Sunnis, confirming that Michel Aoun, despite his pretenses of being a national leader, is little more than a sectarian firestarter. Hariri, instead of fighting back by putting in motion a comprehensive opening to Christians, has maintained a low profile, ceding valuable ground to the opposition.

By not being around today Hariri is sending two messages, neither of them intentional, neither of which does him any good. The first is that he has no say on the presidency and therefore doesn't need to be in on the pre-election maneuvering; the second is that Hariri doesn't take seriously the September 25 deadline set by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to elect a new president. The first message implies that Hariri is not a player; the second makes it seem he is not interested in guaranteeing an election will take place on time, as soon as possible. Hariri cannot be effective if the public views him as unconcerned with the outcome of the presidency, though he is surely as concerned as any politician can possibly be.

A serious question arises more than two years after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Has Saad Hariri truly put his own mark on the Future Movement? Has he created a network of personal loyalties with which he can feel comfortable? There are those in March 14 who argue that his representatives in some areas of Lebanon are not up to the task. It is often unclear whether different members of the Hariri family are on the same political wavelength. What does it mean when a leading figure of the Hariri camp such as Bahije Tabbara openly declares his support, in an opposition newspaper like As-Safir, for a two-thirds quorum to elect the president, in contrast to the strategy adopted by March 14? It means that Saad Hariri does not control his parliamentary bloc, or that someone in the Hariri camp mistreated Tabbara, who felt he had to get one back.

The fate of the Hariri camp will determine the outcome of the independence struggle that began in 2005 and that has yet to reach any sort of finality today. Syria only lost its hold on Lebanon when the Sunni community turned against it after Rafik Hariri's assassination. But the impact of the crime will not be eternal. There is much work the Hariri camp must urgently engage in to firm up the consequences of that historic Sunni reversal. Otherwise, others will try to fill the void and their ambitions may be very different than Saad Hariri's. Lebanon could be distorted as a result, and with it a liberal Lebanon lost.

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