For 15 years after the assassination of his father, Bahaa Hariri avoided public attention while his brother tried in vain to fill the void in Lebanese politics.
In the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut, the eldest son of former prime minister Rafik Hariri decided he could no longer stay on the sidelines. He opened Twitter and Instagram accounts, and began criticizing the corruption that many Lebanese believe led to the port disaster.
Two weeks later, when an international court in The Hague convicted a Hezbollah member of the 2005 car bombing that killed his father and 22 others, Bahaa Hariri went on television to call for a “complete divorce” between Lebanon and the Iranian-backed militia that has taken a stranglehold on his country’s politics.
Now, the man who chose to continue with his business career 15 years ago – even though mourners were chanting his name at his father’s funeral – is shoulders-deep in the quagmire that is Lebanese politics. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said that he was working with the country’s top Christian cleric, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, as well as Lebanese civil society leaders, to try to find a prime minister and cabinet that can tackle the twin challenges of ending corruption and disarming Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah and the warlords, and all who supported them for the past 15 years have led us to the abyss. And we are in the abyss – we are not just looking into the abyss anymore,” the 54-year-old construction and real estate mogul said via Skype from his temporary base in London.
Mr. Hariri said the combination of the port explosion – which many Lebanese blame on the culture of corruption that allowed a mound of ammonium nitrate to sit unattended in a warehouse for six years – and the guilty verdict delivered by The Hague-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon had fundamentally altered the political map of his country.
“Hezbollah before had the Christians giving them their consent,” Mr. Hariri said, referring to the power-sharing agreement reached between Hezbollah, a predominantly Shia Muslim movement, and President Michel Aoun, who is a Christian. “Today, the Christian community is against [Hezbollah], the Sunni community is against, and also civil society and all the moderates of all other religions are against. So, we are not the minority anymore. We are the majority.”
Echoing the demands of protesters who have taken to the streets of Beirut since last fall – demonstrations that resumed with new anger following the port explosion – Mr. Hariri said that all of those who worked with Hezbollah over the 15 years since his father’s murder should be removed from power. “And I mean all.”
It’s a not-too-subtle jab at his 50-year-old brother Saad, who was drafted into leading Lebanon’s Sunni community after their father’s assassination. In the name of keeping the sectarian peace, Saad Hariri reached a series of informal agreements with Hezbollah over the past 15 years; until last fall he served as prime minister in a national unity government dominated by allies of the Shia militia.
Under the agreement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the country’s president must always be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.
The prime minister’s post has been vacant since Aug. 10, when Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of the port explosion, which killed at least 180 people and devastated entire neighbourhoods. Mr. Diab, whose appointment was supported by Hezbollah, remains as caretaker while the country searches for a replacement who can win the support of parliament.
During the interview, Bahaa Hariri at first insists he doesn’t want the prime minister’s job for himself “ever.” But later, the billionaire businessman said the job shouldn’t go to an unknown technocrat who lacked popular appeal – and gave himself some wiggle room to change his mind. “Definitely, I intend to lead in serving my country in one way or another. I cannot say now [in which post] because hasty decisions are bad decisions.”
Mr. Hariri’s emergence as a political persona – if not yet formally a politician – comes amid swirling international drama over the fate of Lebanon. French President Emmanuel Macron is due to arrive in Beirut on Tuesday to propose a “new political deal” for the former French colony.
Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne visited Beirut on Thursday, to see for himself the destruction caused by the port blast, and to add his voice to those calling for sweeping reforms. “I said to the president and I will repeat it here in the media, listen to the street,” he told reporters after meeting Mr. Aoun at his office. Mr. Champagne said that his message was: “Listen to the young people. Listen to these women. … They want change; they deserve change.”
The first step is choosing a new prime minister who can oversee expected early elections. Saad Hariri was initially considered a front-runner to return to the job, but made it clear this week that he wasn’t interested in serving a third term.
Some believe his brother is positioning himself as an alternative. “Bahaa is sensing a local gap while his brother Saad continues to lose relevance in both local Sunni leadership and that of Lebanon at large,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of international affairs at the Lebanese American University.
Prof. Salamey said it was unclear whether Bahaa Hariri’s appearance on the political scene was at the behest of Saudi Arabia, historically the main backer of Lebanon’s Sunni community, or part of a new Turkish push for influence in Lebanon, a country that was once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Mr. Hariri avoided questions from The Globe and Mail about his links. In the interview, he said that while he wishes Mr. Macron well in his push to encourage reforms, Lebanon’s problems had to be resolved by the Lebanese themselves. He said his father’s vision was to separate religion and politics in the country, so that merit, rather than sectarian interests, would dictate who got top government jobs.
But on the key question of how to persuade Hezbollah to disarm and relax its grip on Lebanese politics, Mr. Hariri said the decision would be made in Iran, not Lebanon.
“It’s not Hezbollah’s decision, they don’t make the decisions, Tehran makes the decisions,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we the people of Lebanon, have had enough.”
With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa
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