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Lebanon's New Sunni Leadership Projects

Lebanon's New Sunni Leadership Projects

Friday, 7 February, 2020 - 12:15
People attend a parade, on the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence, at Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Hussam Itani

The outbreak of the Lebanese uprising was preceded by several attempts to form alternative Sunni political entities to the Future movement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Most of these attempts were made by politicians who had supported Hariri for many years before abandoning him. However, after October 17, many of them realized that the country has changed forever, especially with regard to the way in which Lebanese citizens view their affiliations and loyalties.

Sectarianism will not become irrelevant in the foreseeable future, but what has been happening for more than a hundred days indicates that transcending sectarianism is possible with the national Lebanese identity crystalizing. Thus, they have realized that their old projects have become obsolete.

Saad Hariri’s decline was gradual. It spanned many years, starting in 2009 when the March 14 coalition failed to translate their electoral victory into a political one, as it was forced to form a coalition government with its opponents. Then the setbacks continued: from internal austerity to the eventual total collapse of March 14 to the presidential settlement of 2016 that brought Michel Aoun to the presidency.

These events were accompanied by a growing sense of frustration among the Sunni public stemming from their feeling that Hariri, who had invested in the community’s animosity against Hezbollah to mobilize his base, was too weak to stop Hezbollah’s expansion. After the Syrian Revolution, his helplessness became even more apparent.

More importantly, Saad Hariri was not able to revive the economic project that was a pillar of his father’s leadership. Indeed, he closed the media and service-delivering institutions that his father established. Making matters worse, he was accused of corruption and imposing unfair taxes; the later culminated with Whats App tax, proposed by one of the Future ministers, which sparked the Lebanese revolution.

Last but not least, we have his alliance with Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, who was despised by the majority of the Lebanese, as demonstrated by the chants directed against him during the protests.

Those who tried to replace Hariri failed because they failed, as he did, in both providing economic prosperity and countering Hezbollah’s influence. For example, Ashraf Rifi, who managed to win the 2016 municipal elections in Tripoli by taking a more hard-line stance on Hezbollah and contrasting the poverty of the city’s residents with their leaders’ wealth, failed miserably in the parliamentary election of 2018.

It goes without saying that such projects will have even fewer chances of success in the future for two reasons: the first is their inability to produce the new kind of leadership in an environment where people have grown weary of the traditional leadership model.

The second is that it impossible for these current Sunni leaders to mobilize on the basis of confronting Hezbollah since they did not hold a primary seat in the Sunni community at a time of deeper fragmentation within it. Today, the Sunni community, with its fragmentized leadership, presents a model that the rest of the sects should emulate.

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