Hariri’s conflict with Aoun ends with his resignation

  • Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is in conflict with President Michel Aoun over the formulation of the new Lebanese government
  • A conflict of interest is apparent between the Western-centerned Hariri and the Hezbollah-allied Aoun
  • In August, an aid conference will be hosted by France in a final effort to form a government under the new Prime Minister-designate, Najib Mikati

Why is Hariri in conflict with President Aoun?

Answer: Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri and President Michel Aoun blame each other over the failure in efforts to form a new government.

Since the devastating Beirut Port explosion of August 4, 2020, Lebanon has experienced tremendous political turmoil. The port explosion and the succession of three Prime Ministers within a year exacerbated the financial collapse, the economic recession and all their social consequences. Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned on August 10, in the aftermath of the explosion.

Then, Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany, Mustapha Adib, was picked on August 31 to form a cabinet after French President Macron’s intervention secured a consensus on naming him. Nevertheless, he quit less than a month later over failure to form a government.  Since then, Diab has been serving as a caretaker PM until a new government is formed by Saad al-Hariri.

On July 15, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate, resigned after nine months of inability to form a government. Hariri was tasked with forming a government last October after Adib’s resignation. However, he did not manage to assemble a Cabinet. Hariri publicly named and shamed the President (and Hezbollah) for blocking the formation of a cabinet. On the other end of the spectrum, President Aoun blames Hariri for wanting to disrupt the sect-based Lebanese political system. A war of words reached its peak in June, when Hariri publicly called out the President for being controlled by the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

The dispute revolved around the size of the new government and the distribution of the portfolios. Lebanon’s political system is based on confessionalism. It is run under sect-based power-sharing for its religious communities. Key political and public sector offices are allocated to different sects in order to guarantee political representation to all of them. Following this system, the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. Nevertheless, this allocation of power has led to accusations of patronage, corruption and clientelistic relations in favor of one’s own sect. 

What does Hariri want?

Answer: Hariri wants to implement economic and financial reforms to meet the conditions of France and the International Monetary Fund, and reverse Lebanon’s economic collapse.

In October 2020, Hariri was appointed on his fourth term in office with the task to form the new government. Hariri has claimed that he selected his candidates for the governmental scheme based on their expertise and their ability to reform the economy. He aims in forming a government of independent specialists acting as ministers, without the capacity for a blocking third by any party. A blocking third would mean selecting more than eight ministers for any party among the 24 ministers of the government, something that would guarantee a veto power to that party. Hariri fiercely rejected that, while the President’s plans included this prerequisite. 

Also, Hariri aimed to implement reforms that would allow Lebanon to receive financial support and a bailout scheme supported by the IMF. Since Hariri came back into power, he has stated that he aims to stop the “collapse” of the economy and help the Lebanese who are suffering the consequences.

It is crucial to keep in mind that the public anger against the political elite was thriving even before last August’s tragedy in Lebanon. The long-standing corruption, the dire living conditions for a large part of the population, and the country’s economic crisis led Hariri to resign as PM in October 2019 amid protests against the ruling elite. His resignation was perceived as a victory of the protest movement. Thus, seeing him again in power – with a parliament’s slim majority – one year later suggests to many that nothing changed.

Even though Hariri claims to want to bring a change and fight corruption, he is part of the long-standing elite. He is the son of Rafik Hariri, former PM, who was assassinated in 2005. He has been backed by Saudi Arabia during all his previous terms as PM and holds a dual Saudi citizenship. Critics have even accused him of being directly controlled by Saudi Arabia, especially after his 2017 resignation.

Moreover, Hariri enjoys good relationships with the West. France—the former colonial power—supported his nomination given that there seemed to be no better alternative during the hectic months following Diab’s resignation. Macron is trying to persuade rival politicians to adopt a roadmap of reforms and form a new government to fight corruption, a prerequisite for international donors, such as the IMF, to unlock financial aid.

What does President Aoun want?

Answer: Aoun wants to secure his -and his allies’- power over the government.

Michel Aoun has served as the President of Lebanon since 2016. He is the founder of the Maronite Christian political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), and a political ally of the radical Shi’ite movement Hezbollah. The foundations of this alliance were set in 2006. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah and Michel Aoun (who was the head of the FPM back then) signed a Memorandum of Agreement. The need of the Shi’ites and the Maronite Christians to partner in order to respond to the Sunni ‘threat’ dates back to the Ottoman Empire.

Even though the Memorandum was framed as a way to encourage national dialogue, it aimed to allow Hezbollah to enter national politics as a neutral power and to secure the Presidency for Aoun. There was no ideological affinity between the two partners, it was rather realpolitik. The competition among Lebanon’s different sects and rivalries within the sects has allowed several such alliances to take place during the past decades. 

The Aoun-Hezbollah alliance is a key factor influencing Lebanon’s political process. The party has a large parliamentary bloc, but also it is an armed militia. As an actor backed by Iran, Hezbollah allows Lebanon to be held hostage to Iran’s interests.

During the recent stalemate, President Aoun insisted on having control over Hariri’s cabinet. He wanted to be granted a third of cabinet portfolios, something that led to a confrontation with Hariri. The President wanted to secure his influence over the government. Publicly, Aoun accused Hariri’s governmental scheme of lacking Christian representation. The FPM refused to consent to a government without a blocking third, arguing for “restoring the rights of Christians and the powers of the president of the Republic.” However, Aoun and Hezbollah rejected Hariri’s effort to form a technocratic cabinet, free of political interference and no bloc enjoying a blocking third, because that would deprive them of veto power.

What is Hariri doing?

Answer: Hariri resigned over the political dispute with president Aoun. 

In this dispute, each side blamed the other for the deadlock. Aoun accused Hariri of dismissing the country’s sectarian power-sharing system, while Hariri accused Aoun of wanting too large of a share in the government for his allies.

Hariri directly attacked Aoun several times during the months preceding his resignation. He has said that “The main problem of this country is Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, who in turn protects him. This is the equation in the country and if someone can’t see it then they’re blind.

Hariri (reportedly) presented several different cabinets to Aoun on 18 occasions, but none of them satisfied the President. The goals of each side were made clear months before the resignation. Each side pushed for severely different objectives and ultimately for a different Lebanon. President Aoun arguably undermines Lebanon’s future over his (and his allies’) stay in national politics, while Hariri -as a more Western-centered political figure- aimed at a Lebanon abiding with the IMF’s (and France’s) reforms. 

Hours after his decision, Hariri said to local television “You can’t ask me to do everything I can and there is another who doesn’t want to sacrifice anything”. The bitterness in his words aligned with the international community’s disappointment of yet another failed effort to revert Lebanon’s downturn. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Lebanese pound on a free fall, population immersed in poverty and a new PM-designate form the current status quo in Lebanon while the international powers will meet in what seems like the last chance for the country to recuperate.

The European Union has threatened sanctions against selected Lebanese political leaders in an effort to put pressure and overcome deadlocks. Right after the Beirut port explosion, Emmanuel Macron led the efforts to deal with the crises Lebanon is facing. He visited Lebanon twice and launched a plan to address the financial crisis and the corrupt political elite in a move that came to be known as the French initiative.

The international community conditioned aid to Lebanon on reforms designed to fight corruption and pressure politicians to agree on a government that would implement them. However, these endeavors did not yield results. After Hariri abandoned the efforts to form the government, France announced it would host an aid conference on the first anniversary of Beirut’s port explosion (i.e., August 4, 2021). This could be the last chance for Lebanon to reverse its freefall.

However, besides the Western powers that have ‘traditionally’ been involved in Lebanon’s domestic affairs, China aims to expand its influence in this part of the world too. Given the strict conditions and reforms that the IMF has asked for in order to unlock financial aid, ‘looking to the East’ seemed as an opportunity for Lebanese leaders. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly endorsed strengthening ties with the Asian power.

During the Covid-19 pandemic and after the Beirut explosion, China has sent medical supplies as well as military vehicles to Lebanon. Lebanon holds a very important geopolitical position in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its influence is likely to rise through trade and investments that will benefit both Beirut and Beijing. Nevertheless, this cannot happen without the formulation of a government that will lead the crisis-stricken country. 

The past months of political paralysis worsened the crises the country was facing. The World Bank called Lebanon’s economic crisis one of the worst in modern history. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value, hitting an all-time low and driving more than half of the population below the poverty line. ‘Social explosion’ could emerge at any time, said Diab amid a climate of uncertainty, disappointment and lack of trust in the political system.

The only (potential) winner over this dispute would be President Aoun. It became apparent that he is determined to push for his own terms in the formulation of the new government and support his thesis at any cost. He is unlikely to step down his efforts when facing the new Prime Minister-designate.The new PM-designate Najib Mikati – appointed on July 26 – has to carry out the task his two predecessors failed to do, form the country’s next government.

The majority of Lebanon’s parties, including Hezbollah and the Future Movement, nominated him to the post. The fact that Hezbollah endorsed Mikati generates hopes for a government formulation in the crisis-stricken country on the one hand, but also new challenges will arise if the militant group expands its influence, on the other.