Saad Hariri’s financial troubles and his absence from Lebanon for around five months are dampening Sunni enthusiasm for him, but his status as a symbol of his much-loved, assassinated father is an obstacle for any Sunni leader hoping to replace him.
Hariri has been out of the country since April, moving between Paris and Riyadh, security concerns being cited as the reason for his absence.
No one NOW Lebanon interviewed on the record disputed that, but analysts and officials speaking off the record have suggested money problems and the need to mend his relationship with Saudi officials are the more pressing reasons keeping Hariri out of the country.
Future Movement MP Nohad Mashnouq, who insisted security was Hariri’s biggest concern, also noted that the party leader “has administrative and financial problems, which he is resolving.”
While NOW Lebanon first reported in November 2010 that Hariri was no longer offering financial assistance to supporters in the northern city of Tripoli, his patronage problems allegedly began over a year before then.
In a leaked US Embassy cable dated December 9, 2009, March 14 General Coordinator Fares Soueid is described as claiming “that the Saudi financial support to the March 14 Secretariat and Hariri’s Future TV and affiliated newspapers had stopped” three months prior.
Then on February 5, 2010, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea apparently told the Americans that Hariri’s “money woes… had hit [his] own Sunni supporters in the Future Movement particularly hard.”
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, formerly a very close Hariri ally, allegedly criticized the way Hariri doled out his cash in a meeting with US officials in May 2009, nearly a year after telling the Americans that the Saudis were upset with Hariri for not using “large amounts” of their money to produce “tangible results,” according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. Jumblatt is described as saying that the Saudis were pushing Hariri to “pursue a different strategy” in return for continued support.
Hani Nsouli, a journalist who writes for An-Nahar, told NOW Lebanon that financial problems may also be behind a recent spat between the Future Movement and Sunni Mufti of the Lebanese Republic Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, long a diehard Hariri ally. Last month Qabbani met with Hezbollah officials and Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, prompting Future MPs to boycott prayers the Mufti led to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
Qabbani then toured the South, repeatedly taking digs at Future MP Khaled Daher, who earlier had criticized Military Intelligence for being too close to Hezbollah. The tussle between the Mufti and the party was the first such public disagreement in memory.
However, while both Nsouli and former MP Misbah al-Ahdab—who lost his seat in Tripoli in 2009 when Hariri bumped him to ally with current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Mohammad Safadi and Ahmed Karami—said that closing his coffers is upsetting many of Hariri’s supporters, they noted that there does not seem to be a push to abandon the leader.
Perhaps his most credible, and wealthy, rival for leadership of the Sunni community is Mikati, who hails from the northern Sunni bastion of Tripoli. He is apparently handing out services and attempting to widen his base of support, but as of now it is unclear how far that can take him.
Most Sunnis in the North remember well the Syrian takeover of Tripoli in the mid-1980s, and Sunnis across the country view the government in Damascus particularly wearily these days as President Bashar al-Assad continues a violent crackdown on largely peaceful, and mostly Sunni, protestors.
Nsouli argued that Mikati is still seen as quite close to the Syrian regime and noted that Hariri himself ruffled feathers in the Sunni community when he visited Damascus in December 2009. For his part Ahdab, an independent politician from the Democratic Renewal Movement, thinks there is room for a “third force” political movement—neither March 14 nor March 8—to gather steam both within the Sunni community and among the population at large.
That said, Hariri is the physical symbol of his assassinated father, still adored and revered in the Sunni “street.” In the patronage-laden cult of personality that is Lebanese politics, such status often trumps anything else, and independent politicians have traditionally not fared well.
Also, the Saudis are locked in a battle for regional supremacy with Iran, and with Hezbollah reportedly pouring money into Tripoli in an effort to divide the Sunnis—an argument Ahdab has made for years—Riyadh will likely have to back Hariri financially again in the 2013 elections so as not to lose ground.
So, while Hariri is likely no longer riding at the crest of a wave of popular support the way he was in 2005, he is not necessarily drifting out to sea. As Nsouli put it, “The Future Movement today is like that old saying about women: ‘You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them.’”