| 7 December 2023, Thursday |

Is Saad Hariri staying away from Lebanon’s March election

All Lebanese parties are preparing for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, which are slated for March 27, 2022. Politicians appear on television shows on a regular basis, making their customary campaign promises, such as responsibility for corruption, the unlocking of locked depositor bank accounts, and the provision of power.

Party flags are flying in their respective constituencies: orange for Gibran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), yellow for Hezbollah, and green for the Amal Movement. The Future Movement’s blue flag is conspicuously absent from early campaigning in Beirut, amid widespread speculation that its leader, Saad Al Hariri, will not run for office next March.

This has caused his friend and supporter, ex-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, to pay him a visit in order to obtain clarity. Hariri has stated that he will make an announcement when he returns to Beirut later this month. He has, however, made it plain to followers that even if the Future Movement does not run in the elections, they are free to run as independents. His abrupt exit from politics comes just four months after he rejected to form a government, leaving the Sunni community that he leads perplexed and concerned.

No Familiar Names

If Hariri does not run for parliament, neither will Fouad Siniora or any of the Future Movement’s notable Sunnis, such as ex-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. Former Prime Minister Tammam Salam, the scion of a prominent Sunni family in Beirut, has likewise decided not to run for re-election. Sunni candidates will be either independents, members of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Azm Movement, or members of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition, such as Tripoli’s Faisal Karami and ex-Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Murad.

Inadequate funding
There are several reasons for Hariri’s decision to boycott the elections, the most important of which is a lack of cash to fund a statewide campaign for him and his supporters. During an interview with Al Jadeed TV last summer, he stated flatly, “I used to be a millionaire, but I am no more.” After deciding to become his father’s political heir and successor in 2005, he spent a large portion of his fortune in domestic politics.

The rise of Bahaa Al Hariri

More concerning than these constraints is his elder brother Bahaa’s growing political ambition, which will join Lebanese politics next March through a group of Sunni personalities, some of whom are former Future Movement members.

Unlike Saad, Bahaa has not squandered his wealth from their late father, Rafik Al Hariri’s business empire. His net fortune is reportedly $2 billion, according to Forbes, with enough of finances at his disposal to entice voters and sell himself as the future leader of Lebanese Sunnis, much as his father did when he appeared in the early 1990s.

Unlike Saad, the Boston University-educated Bahaa has adopted an especially harsh stance against Hezbollah, which is music to the ears of the West and Saudi Arabia. His ambition has grown significantly since his political debut two years ago, when he supported citywide protests that ousted his brother’s third ministry in October 2019.

Before the March elections, his current campaign list, “Sawa Li Lubnan,” is already putting up billboards across Beirut. While Saad has shuttered his media operations such as Future TV and al-Mustaqbal newspaper, which were critical for prior elections (due to a lack of funding), Bahaa is campaigning using his online Sawt Beirut International platform, which is airing on satellite television through LBC.

He has also hired the CT Group, an Australian political consulting firm, to plan his campaign strategy, and Sawa li Lubnan has already established ten offices across the country, with headquarters in Downtown Beirut—a posh neighborhood rebuilt by Rafik Al Hariri and long considered his pride and joy.

Bahaa Al Hariri, on the other hand, will not run for office in March, preferring to usher in a group of followers and allies. When that happens, Bahaa will become a minor but growing power in Lebanese politics, forcing a schism both within the Sunni community and inside his brother’s Future Movement.

These are difficult times for Saad Al Hariri, and it may be better for him to sit back and watch rather than engage in a fight that he may no longer be able to win.