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    Middle East
     Jan 29, 2011

Hariri backed wrong horse
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - All is fair in love, war - and politics. That is what the old saying says, and that is what theoretically should apply to Lebanon.

The toppling of prime minister Saad al-Hariri was a brilliant game of power politics, carried out by the Hezbollah-led opposition. Hezbollah agreed to join the Hariri cabinet in 2009 on one condition: that it pledged to protect and maintain the arms of the Lebanese resistance.

That was clearly breached by Hariri when he refused to distance himself from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is scheduled to issue indictments in February, naming Hezbollah


members in connection with the 2005 murder of his father, Rafik al-Hariri.

The opposition tried, to no avail, to reach a deal with Hariri. They promised to maintain and empower him as prime minister, protecting him within his own Sunni constituency. They promised never to use Hezbollah arms internally and to deal with the issue of false witnesses, which has kept the ex-prime minister awake at night.

Those witnesses, some being his most senior advisors, had lied under oath and obstructed justice in the Hariri affair, with the aim of implicating both Hezbollah and Syria. If Hariri made a u-turn on the STL, the opposition promised to allow bygones to be bygones and declare a truce that would last until the upcoming parliamentary elections took place in 2013.

Hariri was reportedly on the verge of agreeing to "all of the above" and to distancing himself and his country, legally, financially and politically from the hated STL.

Then, something happened in New York, when Hariri met a colorful array of US politicians while visiting the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was receiving medical treatment. Headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, these US officials talked him into a u-turn not on the STL but on the Syrian-Saudi initiative for Lebanon.

By the first week of January, two things were very clear for the Lebanese prime minister. One, given what he had heard in the US, there was no longer any need to do anything about the STL. Second, those indictments, probably to Hariri's pleasure, were going to name senior Hezbollah figures in the murder of his father.
As a result, 11 members of the Hezbollah-led opposition walked out on the prime minister while he was visiting President Barack Obama in Washington, thereby bringing down his cabinet. There was nothing illegal in how they toppled the Lebanese premier. No Hezbollah warriors took to the streets, threatening to bring him down by force. What was actually horrendous was how Hariri reacted to his thundering and swift crash.

Rather than accept it with a democratic heart, he sent his hoodlums to northern Lebanon, where they barbarically rioted, injured people, destroyed public property, and burned pictures of his replacement, incoming Prime Minister Najib Mikati. A more civilized attitude, no doubt, would have been expected from the 40-year-old Georgetown-educated billionaire who for years had ostensibly supported entrepreneurship, business, and dialogue. Last week, however, he sounded and looked more like a gangster walking out of an Al Capone movie than a statesman or prime minister.

Hariri's replacement Mikati began consultations on Thursday to create a cabinet of political independents and technocrats like the one he presided over for 90 days in 2005. The ex-premier's March 14 Alliance has already announced that it will not join a cabinet that is not headed by Hariri.

Furious at being ejected from office with little respect or ceremony, Hariri cried foul play, claiming that this was a Hezbollah coup, drumming up street anger by flaring confessional rhetoric that says; "A Shi'ite is getting to name the Sunni prime minister of Lebanon!"

Different players in March 14 are angry for different reasons. Ex-warlord Samir Gagea, for example, is furious, suddenly finding himself and the Lebanese Forces (LF) out of government and facing a very disgruntled Lebanese public. He realizes that with Hariri out of power and no longer commanding the upper hand in Beirut politics, the LF has no business in maintaining its ties to the ex-prime minister.

They had nothing in common to start out with, with Gagea being a radical sectarian Maronite politician who loathed Hariri's father for having kept him behind bars throughout the 1990s. Ex-president Amin Gemayel, also a one-time Hariri ally, is also recalculating: he needed Hariri to share in power - there is no sense in sharing the opposition with him. Other March 14 heavyweights, like Druze member of parliament Walid Jumblatt, have already abandoned Hariri, switching into the Hezbollah-led opposition and voting for Mikati.

To avoid creating further tension, Hezbollah will soon announce that it also does not want representation in the Mikati government to prevent a "one-color cabinet" from emerging. Among the names earmarked for posts are men like Karam Karam, a respected physician; ex-health minister Michel Samaha, an influential ex-information minister who was a ranking member of the Lebanese Phalange; and Mohammad al-Safadi, a member of parliament from Tripoli.

Clearly, a certain wing in Saudi Arabia is unimpressed with Mikati replacing Hariri in the premiership, and will work hard at making the new prime minister's job a very difficult one.

This wing of Hariri-backers includes Crown Prince Sultan; his son, the former Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar; and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. Strongly allied to Egypt, whose President Hosni Mubarak remains radically anti-Syrian, these Saudi politicians are eager to settle an old score with Hezbollah and all of them are furious at being outflanked in Lebanon.

The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, thinks differently, and so does his son Prince Abdul-Aziz, who played the go-between in Syrian-Lebanese relations in recent months. It was the former group that saw the king's illness in late 2010 as a blessing in disguise - especially since he was on the verge of declaring success in the Syrian-Saudi Initiative.

With Hezbollah having swiftly toppled Hariri, they feel that they have been muscled down in Lebanon by the Lebanese opposition, Iran and Syria - and are very bitter about it.

Mohammad al-Safadi, the Tripoli member of parliament who has plenty of business investment in Saudi Arabia, refused to vote for Saad al-Hariri in the recent cabinet formation talks with President Michel Suleiman.

Effectively he stood up and said no to the pro-Egyptian camp in the Saudi royal family. So did Walid Jumblatt. The two men voted at will, irrespective of the political consequences this would have on their relationship with Hariri, Saudi Arabia, or the United States.

If anything, this proves that unlike Hariri, who allowed himself to be manipulated by the radical branch in Saudi Arabia, different Lebanese players are starting to mature and take national decisions based on what they see as best for Lebanon, rather than what other players want for Lebanon.

This explains why so many different players, at different political levels, wanted to drown the Syrian-Saudi Initiative for Lebanon. A u-turn on the STL, which was completely within reach, would have spelled out disaster for their political program in Beirut. In looking back, they probably now realize that they were mistaken, because in reality, what they did was give Saad al-Hariri enough rope to hang himself.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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