- November 18, 2019

As Lebanon’s protests enter another week, there are three developments to watch: President Michel Aoun’s controversial remarks last Tuesday; the failed nomination of Mohammad al-Safadi as prime minister; and Hezbollah’s political maneuvering as government formation continues. These events will shape the future trajectory of the protests.

Aoun’s Controversial Speech

President Michel Aoun unintentionally gave Lebanon’s uprising a second wind this past week. In a combative interview, the self-proclaimed “father of all” Lebanese accused the protesters of ruining Lebanon, chastised them for refusing to engage in dialogue with the country’s political authorities, and even called on them to emigrate if they couldn’t find a decent governmental interlocutor.

Aoun’s interview – particularly his call for emigration – struck a nerve with protesters, who responded angrily by taking to the streets. The Lebanese Presidency’s subsequent dubious clarification that Aoun hadn’t intended the statement in that way did little to mollify them. Compounding matters, a Lebanese Army soldier shot and killed Alaa Abou Fakher, a 38-year-old father of three children, who has now been dubbed the “Martyr of the Revolution.”

Aoun’s interview reflected a belief among the ruling political class that the Lebanese street can still be managed and ultimately forced to accept whatever terms the authorities dictate. In retrospect, Aoun’s combativeness may have been a pre-planned attempt by the president and his allies in Amal, Hezbollah, and the Free Patriotic Movement to gauge the street’s reaction to the effective rejection of the street’s demand for a purely technocratic government.

The Failed Nomination of Safadi as Prime Minister

In fact, two days later – after a meeting among Saad Hariri, Amal’s Ali Hassan Khalil, and Hezbollah’s Hajj Hussein al-Khalil – reports emerged that Hariri, Amal, Hezbollah, and the Free Patriotic Movement agreed to a proposal to nominate ex-minister Mohammad al-Safadi as prime minister, pending approval by parliament. The Hariri-affiliated MustaqbalWeb denied that the form of the next government had been discussed. However, other sources claimed the sides agreed to a mixed technocratic-political government – precisely the form of government demanded by Aoun, Hezbollah, and their allies, and rejected by the protesters. 

In the end, Safadi’s candidacy went nowhere. His proposed nomination fueled further protests, as Safadi was seen by many as a symbol of the corrupt political class. He was also rejected  by former prime ministers Fuad Siniora, Najib Miqati, and Tammam Salam, who all favored Hariri’s return. In fact, Safadi’s nomination may have been a ploy to facilitate the street supporting the reappointment of Hariri – who would appear comparatively less distasteful. Indeed, upon retracting his proposed candidacy, Safadi said he backed Hariri’s return to power.

In the wake of Safadi’s withdrawal, a public rift erupted between Hariri’s Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement. As a result, government formation talks are expected to remain frozen for at least the next few days. However, Safadi’s withdrawal is likely to only be a minor setback because the ostensible progress made by proposing his candidacy was illusory. If anything, his failed nomination shows that the chasm between Lebanon’s political class and its protesters remains as unbridgeable today as it was on October 17. Lebanon’s politicians are still trying to navigate the crisis by attempting to manipulate the street rather than respond to its demands.

Hezbollah’s Political Maneuvering

While this drama played out in Beirut, Hezbollah has been actively involved behind the scenes of government formation. However, it has publicly refrained from commenting on the negotiations. It even remained officially neutral in the public fallout between Hariri and its ally Bassil that followed Safadi withdrawing his candidacy for prime minister. The group has its preferences and opinions on the form of the next government. However, it has remained focused on its core priority: its survival, which is dependent upon the retention of it base.

The group has thus employed a dual approach to its messaging: focusing on increasing its base’s distaste for the protests as a movement to ensure that the uprising won’t siphon away its followers, while at the same time being careful to ensure it doesn’t alienate the entire movement. This approach is evident in Hezbollah’s statements – including speeches by Nasrallah and his deputy Naim Qassem – which continue to decry the overall uprising as an American-hijacked conspiracy while stressing Hezbollah’s identification with what it terms the “legitimate goals” of the protesters.

In doing so, Hezbollah is attempting to retain the support of its Shiite constituency. It can continue to be a part of Lebanon’s political dialogue – and future government – no matter the outcome of the protests or the identity of the next premier.

Conclusion

Lebanon’s political class is still trying to wait out the protests. So far, the actions of each of its factions – including Hariri with his resignation – reveal they have no intention to implement the reforms demanded by the street. Their behaviors are gambits intended to exhaust the protesters and retain their hold on power.