Sunday, March 1, 2015

With house in order, Hariri seeks to build on talks

[Originally posted at NOW]

Future leader has reasserted control over the Sunni community, but it’s unclear how much more can be achieved for now.

When Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri made a surprise return to Lebanon on Friday after a more than three-year absence, one of his close allies, Interior Minister Ashraf Rifi, declared that Lebanon thereafter would be markedly different from Lebanon thitherto.

Five days later, Future officials claim that transformation is already well underway, telling NOW the former prime minister has rapidly and tangibly reasserted his grip on both his party and his broader Sunni Muslim support base, fringes of which had, in his absence, drifted away from Future’s brand of religious moderation toward hardline Islamist and even jihadist rivals.

“I think he did a lot of things in a very brief period of time,” said Future MP Bassem al-Shab. “First of which was putting the house in order. What happened in Arsal threatened to create a Sunni-Sunni rift […] and he wanted to take care of this and I think he did to a large extent.”

Referring to Future hardliners such as MP Muhammad Kabbara, who were initially critical of the Lebanese Army’s conduct in fighting jihadist militants in the border town of Arsal last week, but later expressed support for the military, Shab told NOW, “The dissonant voices […] who criticized the army were quickly silenced, and in the [internal] meeting when [Hariri] said we should support the army unconditionally, there were no [objections].”

In tandem with this political move, said Shab, was a shakeup within the Sunni religious establishment, effected by the election Sunday of a new grand mufti – the community’s top cleric – in place of a predecessor who for years had been at odds with allies of the Future Movement.

“The election of the new mufti,” Shab told NOW, and the presence of both his predecessor and leading non-Future Sunni figures such as former Prime Minister Najib Miqati, furthered “Sunni harmony,” attaining a degree of “reconciliation with the people who opposed him while he was away.”

This double victory, on both the political and religious fronts, puts Hariri in a stronger position within the Sunni community than had been the case just a week ago, analysts told NOW. “Hariri proved that he is the only zaeem [chief] of the Sunnis,” said commentator Mustafa Fahs.

In terms of practical steps going forward, sources told NOW that in addition to overseeing the Saudi Arabian donation of $1bn to the Lebanese Army – his officially-stated reason for returning – Hariri will also implement an economic regeneration program for underdeveloped and marginalized regions that have in the past been susceptible to extremist currents.

“He will provide political and financial support to regions in need, as has already happened in Arsal,” said Future MP Ahmad Fatfat, referring to Hariri’s $15m donation Monday to the war-damaged town.

Hariri himself also pledged Tuesday to “spare no effort to rehabilitate prisons,” in a presumed reference to the notorious Roumieh prison, where dozens of Islamist militants are held, and which has seen numerous inmate escapes in recent years. In June, members of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) faction reportedly called for the release of Islamist prisoners from Roumieh.

Beyond these initiatives, Hariri’s principal next move will be to “continue negotiations with all Lebanese parties” on resolving key domestic issues ranging from presidential and parliamentary elections to the public sector wage increase debate, according to Fatfat and Shab.

Indeed, Hariri’s return is aimed more at creating a conciliatory and functional political environment in the country than implementing any specific, point-by-point action plan, according to a ministerial source who has met Hariri since his arrival and requested anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press.

“I didn’t hear of a specific action plan,” said the source. “For the time being it’s more ‘macro’ politics than ‘micro’ politics.”

Either way, for his part, the ministerial source told NOW he expected little of much significance to result from Hariri’s efforts, owing to obstinacy from Future’s rivals in the ‘March 8’ bloc.

“From what I’m seeing and hearing, I don’t think much will happen,” he told NOW. “The status quo is still the same […] The question is, did the comeback generate enough momentum for other parties to move on, to meet Hariri in the middle? Until now, I don’t see this.”

“And prolonging the mandate of parliament is a bad sign that nothing is expected in the near future,” he added, referring to proposals earlier this week – now effectively backed by Hariri – to once again extend parliamentarians’ terms beyond their constitutional expiry dates.

However, Shab, by contrast, told NOW he saw room for progress in a subtle but substantial shift in Iran’s stance vis-à-vis Lebanon.

“Hariri’s return comes also in [a time] of Iranian flexibility,” said Shab, claiming Tehran has lately sought to defuse sectarian tensions inside the country. “Everybody made sure that [Hariri’s] return was welcome.”

“There is something that has changed not only on this side [i.e. March 14] but also on the other side.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

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