Blog - December 23, 2019

In response to countrywide street protests, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet resigned on October 29, 2019 setting off a nearly two-month search for a replacement. Finally, this past Thursday, President Michel Aoun tasked Hassan Diab – a former education minister and American University of Beirut (AUB) professor – with forming a government after he received 69 votes from parliamentarians in support of his premiership.

Hassan Diab

Hassan Diab was thrust into the candidacy for the premiership overnight. Although he has spent his career in academia at AUB, Diab is no political novice. From June 2011 until April 2013, he served as the minister of education in the government of Syria- and Hezbollah-allied Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Diab served as an independent minister, and stressed his political independence and technocratic bona fides, asking to be spared from the country’s “political bickering” so he could set about “improv[ing] the [country’s] educational sector.”

However, Diab’s lack of party-affiliation shouldn’t be read as a lack of political alignment, given the fact he was hand-picked for his post by a pro-March 8 prime minister. Accordingly, on May 29, 2012, Diab approved an order establishing a Farsi Language Department at Lebanese University’s (LU) Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences. The order was initially issued by the University’s President, Adnan Sayyed Hussein, a former “independent Shiite” minister of state who helped bring down Saad Hariri’s 2009-2011 cabinet in objection to the UN investigation of Rafic Hariri’s 2005 assassination.

The new department was set-up to be jointly administered with the Iranian Embassy in Beirut’s cultural relations department – which uses cultural ties to export the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolution. The May 2012 order also implemented and upgraded a preexisting cooperation agreement with Tehran University.

This was particularly problematic given the make-up of Lebanese University’s student body and faculty. Lebanon’s confessionalist system requires that LU’s president be a Shiite, and – like other earmarked Shiite positions – he is selected by Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement. LU’s main campus is located near Dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut, and both Shiite parties maintain a large presence on its grounds. This large Shiite presence made the University a prime target for ideological recruitment by Tehran, with the Farsi Language Department – under its embassy’s joint administration – serving as a perfect vehicle for Iran’s soft power projection.

Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have backed Diab’s nomination for prime minister. In fact, this nomination was only supported by March 8 parliamentarians. But whether it’s fair to classify him as “Hezbollah’s Candidate” remains to be seen, given that the Shiite group and its junior Amal partner preferred Saad Hariri’s return to power until the former prime minister finally withdrew from the race. Nonetheless, Diab’s track record does at least show that he will do little to counter Hezbollah’s growing hegemony in Lebanon, a necessary prerequisite for the genuine reform the country requires.

Diab Has De Facto Sunni Cover

Hariri and his Future Movement bloc refrained from nominating any candidate for the premiership during Thursday’s parliamentary consultations. Despite a recent decline in support, Hariri remains Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni political figure. Hariri’s decision to refrain from officially endorsing Diab has led to the impression that the incoming premier lacks any “Sunni cover.” Indeed, soon after Diab’s nomination, Sunnis – particularly Future Movement supporters – responded with angry protests.

However, the Future Movement’s leadership, including Hariri, have called on their supporters to immediately vacate the streets. Hariri also indicated that he was willing to give Diab a chance to form a government and implement necessary reforms, and would refrain from criticizing Diab’s government for its first 100 days.

Moreover, Dar al-Fatwa – Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, which only recently reiterated its endorsement of Hariri for the office of prime minister – denied it had rejected Diab’s request for a meeting, and refrained from issuing any position on his nomination. In response, Diab noted that he would schedule a meeting with the Sunni religious body at the end of his government formation consultations, most likely to receive its political blessing. Assuming the genuineness of Hariri’s position, together these developments would end up giving Diab de facto Sunni cover.

Despite the anger of some in response to his nomination, Diab’s political fate remains unclear. One factor to consider is whether Diab will even be able to form a government. He has expressed his intention to form a government of “independent experts” – a formulation rejected by Hezbollah and Amal, who want a mixed government of technocrats and politicians. Nevertheless, Diab’s past record and the reaction of leading Sunni figures may make him seaworthy as a prime minister.

David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).