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Saad Hariri seeks to counter Hezbollah's trans-sectarian hegemony

Saad Hariri stated recently that he was the “father of the Sunnis” in Lebanon. Through such a statement, he was countering moves by Hezbollah to meddle in the affairs of other sects and use them as an excuse to impose its vision of how they should be represented in Lebanese institutions.

Hezbollah does not accept to be a political player with limited turf. Since its inception, the party declared that its goal was to change all of Lebanon -- not just the Shia community -- and make it subservient to Iran’s interests.

The party had first to complete its dominance of the Shia community in Lebanon and subdue its competitor, the Amal Movement, through ideological, political, financial and even military means. It had done that in the 1980s.

Next, the party had to get inside the other sects in Lebanon. It did that by appealing to the slogan of backing the Lebanese resistance. It also encroached on the Christian turf through its “Memo of Understanding” with Michel Aoun and that gave Hezbollah greater space of “legitimacy” in Lebanon than just the mere space of the Shias and their weight in Lebanese society.

The late Rafik Hariri was an exceptional phenomenon in Lebanon in that his rise gave the Lebanese Sunnis a leader. The Sunni leadership in Lebanon had disintegrated during the 1975-90 civil war because of the dominance of Palestinian factions allied with various leftist and nationalist forces.

Even before the war, the Sunni leadership was dispersed geographically. There wasn’t one Sunni leader in Lebanon. Sunni loyalties at that time went to external forces, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser or Riyadh.

The Lebanese Sunnis had seen in Rafik Hariri a leader who came to save them from a political humiliation imposed by the Syrian tutelage over Lebanon. They were being persecuted. In 1989, Lebanon’s grand mufti, Sheikh Hasan Khaled, was assassinated. Saeb Salam went into self-exile in Switzerland and the security machine of the regime went after the Sunni leadership.

However, with Rafik Hariri, the Sunnis were aware that he had arrived in Lebanon through Damascus but they needed a strong man to represent them and defend their standing in the Lebanese social fabric.

The Syrian regime only tolerated Rafik Hariri. It placed many shackles on him and imposed many red lines inside Lebanon and the Sunni community. The Syrian regime was trying to dam the social and economic flow of Lebanese interests towards Syria.

Lebanese authorities, for example, had forbidden Hariri from travelling to the Bekaa Valley or to northern Lebanon. Damascus considered the Sunnis of those places as spoils of war, living in what it considered its vital space and no one had the right to cross into it. When Rafik Hariri was prime minister, leaders of the other sects did not tolerate him in areas under their control.

He formed the Future Movement Party as a cross-sectarian political current. It was not easy to market it among some segments of the Sunni community in Lebanon because it was a novel concept. They had not expected that the Hariri political doctrine would appeal to the concept of a national space, which was supra-sectarian.

The other major political parties in Lebanon were proudly engaged in defending their respective turfs and the rights of the Christian community or promoting the untouchability of the Shias in Lebanon.

Saad Hariri had inherited his father’s political doctrine and did his best to rid it of Sunni sectarian suspicion, even at the height of the regional tension between Sunnis and Shias. In a recent news conference, he reminded of the many cross-sectarian leadership figures inside the Future Movement but ended up by saying that he was the “father of the Sunnis."

Politicians in Lebanon know that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah's anger and his mentioning of previous forces that had worked against the Lebanese people are inconsistent with his claims of Hezbollah victories in Syria and of Iranian victories in the region.

They are aware that Hezbollah is under great pressure, the least of which from US sanctions (including placing Nasrallah's son on a terrorist list). Indeed, the real painful pressure is from within the party’s own Shia community, which is demanding to join the rest of the country in finding solutions to the many problems plaguing Lebanon and improve living conditions.

Nasrallah is trying to let whoever is concerned know he is the father of the Shias in Lebanon. It seems that his trans-Lebanese roles are drying up and he wants to compensate that loss by emphasizing his trans-sectarian roles in Lebanon.

To this end, Hezbollah strongly supported the new election law so it could break into the Sunni community by imposing Sunni figures loyal to it. It considers its success in forcing the Lebanese to elect Aoun president as the ultimate feat of breaking through the Christian community and their top constitutional position in the country.

Nasrallah uses facts and processes internal to Lebanon to complete his seizure of power in Lebanon. The issue of allotting a ministerial portfolio to Hezbollah’s Sunnis is one more step to force everybody in Lebanon, including Aoun and Hariri, to surrender to Hezbollah.

Hariri, on the other hand, proceeds from different facts and calculations and perhaps needs to revise his strategy. He disavowed some of his previous choices, which perhaps did not receive adequate regional support, such as when he supported Suleiman Frangieh, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s “friend,” and then Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, for the presidency.

Hariri admitted that those decisions were unpopular in his own community. He says that "sacrificing for the sake of the homeland" has limits and that the political concessions have reached a red line, both internally at the level of balance of power and regionally at the level of the shift in the international mood towards Iran and its proxies.