Now that the mystery of Moussa al-Sadr’s disappearance has been solved, Lebanon needs a new vanished imam to contemplate.
Why not Saad al-Hariri? Even by his own peripatetic standards, al-Hariri’s absence from the political scene over the past several months has been something to behold. The man has well and truly left the building, and the situation is so bad that even NOW Lebanon has noticed. Michael Young recently had this to say about Hariri’s Houdini act:
Hariri has been abroad for months, an affront to those who elected him. His money problems are genuine and have not yet been resolved, taking a toll on his patronage network and political authority. The former prime minister is not out yet, however if his occultation lasts much longer, his leadership will melt. Many sympathizers wonder what Hariri actually stands for. Who did they mobilize to elect in the 2009 elections? No answer has come from the Future Movement, which has morphed into something of an annoying jack-in-the-box—popping its head up episodically to deliver some statement or barb against Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
In my view, Saad is trying to pull a page from from his father’s playbook. In 1998, after Emile Lahoud was installed as Syria’s man in Baabda, Rafiq al-Hariri resigned. He told a reporter from al-Hayat the reasons behind his calculations in a revealing interview.
Hariri excused himself from forming the first government in the Lahoud era, after a dispute about the delegation of MPs’ votes, which left Lahoud with the freedom to name the prime minister-designate. In fact, some of his friends advised him to leave office, and one of them was then-Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam. Khaddam told him that Lahoud was beginning his mandate in a Buick that was fresh from the dealer, while “you’re driving an Opel that has been ground down by exercising power.” Khaddam suggested that Hariri let Lahoud use up some of the power of his car, and then they would see. This is what happened when Hariri returned to power in 2000 after a clear election victory, a victory that did not anger some Syrian parties that had not been enthusiastic about Lahoud in the first place.
Saad probably hopes that by the time the 2013 elections roll around, the Lebanese will have had enough of Najib Miqati and his Buick — to say nothing of Michel Aoun’s Batmobile and Nasrallah’s STL getaway car — and will welcome Hariri back to town with open arms. It is, in other words, a policy of “offshore balancing,” whereby a once-dominant power sits back and lets its enemies destroy each other before swooping in to tilt the balance in its own favor. (In this case, Hariri is the one who is perpetually offshore, trying to manage the affairs back home…)
My sense is that this gambit will fail. Miqati’s government — just by dint of being in the right place at the right time — will be able to take credit for solving the electricity problem, giving Lebanon high-speed internet, maintaining relative peace and stability while not compromising on the STL issue or crossing any Syrian red lines, and perhaps even introducing proportional representation. Furthermore, depending on how things play out in Syria, the Saudis may find it more advantageous to try to co-opt Lebanon’s new quadripartite alliance (Hizbullah, Aoun, Jumblatt, and Miqati) rather than supporting an electoral “war of elimination” against March 8th in 2013.
Whatever the case may be, the near future doesn’t look so great for al-Mustaqbal.