Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s surprise resignation Nov. 4 while in Saudi Arabia left Lebanon reeling in shock.
The fact that Hariri has not yet returned has led Lebanese authorities to believe that he might be under house arrest. But in his much-awaited first interview since his resignation, Hariri said Nov. 12 that he is a free man and would return to Lebanon within days. He hinted at possibly rescinding his resignation, should Hezbollah agree to stay out of regional conflicts.
However, his tired appearance left many believing that he was still speaking under tight control of Saudi Arabia. At one point during the interview, his eyes welled up with tears and he gave an angry look to someone who appeared for a short moment in the background. "Did you notice that? There’s no way he was speaking freely," Beiruti taxi driver Yasser Abdel Sater told Al-Monitor.
"I am happy to hear Saad Hariri’s announcement regarding his imminent return to Lebanon," tweeted Lebanese President Michel Aoun Nov. 13. “We will then be briefed on all the circumstances, issues and concerns that need to be addressed." Aoun has previously said that he would not accept Hariri’s resignation as long as they cannot meet in person in Lebanon.
These developments have left Lebanon's Sunni community, which is traditionally backed by Saudi Arabia, particularly uneasy.
Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli, is 80% Sunni. The city’s walls are usually covered with giant posters of local politicians, sometimes standing next to Saudi rulers such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"It’s a city where people like to show proximity with Saudi leaders. Our community feels that it has its back covered by Saudi Arabia, the biggest Sunni country in the region. They have the power of money. Now Iran is trying to play on their field, which is why they are fighting each other," Ahmad Kamareddine, the mayor of Tripoli, told Al-Monitor.
In his resignation speech, Hariri slammed Hezbollah and Iran, accusing them of sowing strife against the Arab world. On Nov. 6, the kingdom announced that Lebanon had declared war against it because of aggression by the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. The declaration came two days after the Saudi military intercepted a missile fired from Yemen over Riyadh’s international airport. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of backing Yemen’s rebel Houthi group, which the kingdom has been fighting for over two years.
The escalating regional tensions and Saudi Arabia’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric have direct and dangerous implications for Lebanon. Mustafa Alloush, a former member of parliament from Tripoli and a member of the political bureau of Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, is pessimistic. "The only way to get out of the situation is through a major clash. If there is enough money funneled into Lebanon from abroad, a civil war can happen again," he told Al-Monitor. Foreign powers, such as Syria and Israel, had a major influence on Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990).
But in the streets of Tripoli, no one wants to hear this. Until a few years ago, the city was marred by sporadic deadly fighting. Now that peace has returned, Tripoli has been revamping its infrastructure to attract foreign investors and position itself as a gateway to Syria, once the war is over and reconstructions work starts.
Openly criticizing Saudi Arabia is taboo, even though many recognize how dangerous the kingdom’s recent declarations can be for Lebanon’s stability. "We do not want a new war," Mohamed Harb, a money-changer, told Al-Monitor. "We are not like the Shiites. We do not send our children to fight," he added, in reference to Hezbollah sending fighters to support President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Sunnis are not armed in Lebanon.
Much of the blame for Hariri’s resignation is laid on Hezbollah for having put too much pressure on the prime minister. Recently, Hezbollah and its allies, which are part of Hariri’s government, were pressing him to normalize relations with Syria, even though the Lebanese state officially distanced itself from the conflict in 2012.
"The people of Tripoli were not happy with the consensus that was established between Hezbollah, Saad Hariri and President Aoun [to form a government together]," Tripoli’s mufti, Malek al-Chaar, told Al-Monitor. "The next government needs to be firmer with Hezbollah." According to him, the international community should increase "diplomatic and economic sanctions" against Iran, instead of going down the military route.
Nobody in Tripoli was convinced by the call for calm issued by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah Nov. 5, the day after Hariri’s resignation. "It’s purely decorative," argued Alloush. "Nasrallah cannot call for calm and stay armed. Instead, he should hand over his weapons to the Lebanese army."
With Hariri’s resignation, Sunni leaders with a hawkish stance against Hezbollah are trying to fill the void, such as Ashraf Rifi, who won Tripoli’s local elections in May 2016 against a list backed by Hariri. He resigned as justice minister a few months prior to the elections, in protest at what he described as the dominant role occupied by Hezbollah.
In a souk, posters of Rifi were being put up last week by local furniture shop owner Abu Yassine Sharaf Eddine. Some more recent ones feature Prince Mohammed. "I supported Ashraf Rifi during the last elections’ campaign," he told Al-Monitor. For Sharaf Eddine, Rifi is the only Sunni leader with a strong enough position against Hezbollah and Iran. By Nov. 12, all political posters were banned in Tripoli, after a poster of Prince Mohammed was burned over the weekend.
But for most of Tripoli’s residents, politics are not a pressing matter in comparison with everyday worries. The city is considered to be the poorest in Lebanon. According to Alloush, one-third of its men are unemployed and only 40% of the population votes. In the main square, dozens of taxis stand in line waiting for customers. "I never vote," taxi driver Mohammad Badra told Al-Monitor, adding that he does not make more than 20,000 Lebanese pounds a day ($13). "I would only vote for a politician who offers new job opportunities, and no one has done that recently."
For jeweler Omar Namel, the political scene in Lebanon is an "embarrassment." He has a scar on his leg caused by a grenade exploding next to him in 2012 during sectarian clashes. "I want to offer my 4-year-old daughter education opportunities like politicians’ children who can go abroad. But unfortunately, I cannot. Lebanon deserves better than politicians like Saad Hariri, or anyone else," he told Al-Monitor.