Blog - November 1, 2019

Two weeks after they began, Lebanon’s anti-government protests have not abated. Despite certain developments like Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation, the protesters have not cleared the streets and are still insisting on their original demand to bring down the entire political class in government. The following update provides the latest state of play, analyzing speeches by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General and Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation.

Nasrallah’s Speeches and the Street’s Response

Hassan Nasrallah gave a second speech on October 25. In another attempt to coopt the protests, he praised the protesters’ accomplishments, and continued to back their aims for reform, but once again stopped short of backing their call to bring down the government. He also attempted to discredit the protest’s leadership, by claiming they were foreign-funded and backed, and weren’t ultimately concerned with Lebanon’s interests or well-being. Nasrallah also called on Hezbollah supporters – a euphemism for the group’s affiliated street thugs – to withdraw from the street, after they had been attacking protesters and harassing them.

Protesters reacted to Nasrallah’s accusations with a mixture of bewilderment and anger, with most rising to defend the protests and saying they were self-funded and unguided by outside forces, alongside a scattered minority vocally attacking Hezbollah and calling for its disarmament.

As matters stand, sentiments among protesters – as best as can be deduced from Lebanese media interviews with individual protesters – on Hezbollah can be divided into four categories. One category comprises the anti-government protesters that have expressed overt support for Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, calling on the group to join them in the street against the government. A second category appears to consider Hezbollah and/or Nasrallah overall honorable and have respectfully expressed bewilderment as to why the group has backed the corrupt political class instead of the protesters. A third category attacked Hezbollah and linked it to the corrupt political class, but stopped short of calling for its disarmament. In some cases, protesters that fit into this category even said they backed its “resistance” against Israel. A fourth category, perhaps the smallest, blamed Hezbollah for the country’s problems and called for its disarmament.

Hariri’s Resignation and Potential Return

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in a televised speech, saying he came to the decision after reaching a “deadlock” in enacting reforms. Hariri did not elaborate, but subsequent news reports revealed that the deadlock centered on his promise of a cabinet reshuffle, specifically his desire to remove the contentious Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil from his post. However, the prime minister received pushback from President Aoun and Hezbollah, Bassil’s father-in-law and political ally, respectively.

Hariri soon made the move official by traveling to the Baabda Presidential Palace and handing his resignation to President Michel Aoun. Subsequent reports indicated that Hariri had come to the decision unilaterally, though other parties were aware he was going to undertake the move.

Protesters initially responded positively to Hariri’s resignation, with many expressing their support and admiration for the prime minister.  Though as the evening wore on, Lebanon’s “Sunni street” began expressing increased anger at the move. Not over the resignation per se, but the resulting impression that Hariri – their sectarian leader – was being scapegoated, while the Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun, the Shiite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and the rest of the political class remained in power.

Hariri attempted to calm his supporters, saying he appreciated their backing but also asked them to avoid any acts of violence or vandalism, not to block roads, and to comply with the orders of the Lebanese Army and security forces.

Aoun initially waivered on accepting Hariri’s resignation, saying he would take his time to consider his next steps. However, the next day, Aoun made the resignation official, asking Hariri and his government to carry on in a caretaker capacity until a new prime minister was appointed, and promising to begin consultations to that end immediately.

However, it remains to be seen whether or now Hariri will once again be tapped to form a government, and what form it will take. The OTV channel – closely affiliated with Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement – said based on “informed sources” that three options were being considered for a new prime minister: 1) that Hariri would head the next government, 2) that a another individual would be asked to head the government, but with Hariri’s consent and as part of a broader governmental understanding, 3) and – the least likely option, according to OTV – is that a candidate besides Hariri will be chosen, but without Hariri’s consent.

Some considered Hariri’s resignation a “major blow” to Hezbollah, given the prime minister’s malleability and the political cover that the pro-Western prime minister provided the group and its arms. However, that assessment remains premature, as the nature and composition of the next government and the resulting effects on the group – even if it complies entirely with the protester’s demands – remain to be seen. It should be noted that former MP Robert Fadel – part of the “leadership” of the uprising – has said that disarming Hezbollah was not on the protest leaders’ agenda, and had not even been brought up for discussion by them.

For its part, Hezbollah considered Hariri’s resignation a “distraction” that would waste valuable time better devoted to enacting reforms and passing the 2020 budget. However, Hashem Saffiedine – the chairman of its Executive Council – said that Hezbollah “endured a lot over the past two weeks to protect Lebanon, and not to protect individuals or parties,” suggesting the group does not view Hariri as indispensable. Hassan Nasrallah’s remarks on Friday should provide more insight into the Party of God’s next steps.

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