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Why Lebanon’s prime minister resigned

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned Saturday, saying he sensed a plot on his life.

Last Saturday, in a televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon’s prime minister unexpectedly resigned. Saad Hariri blamed Iran and Hezbollah for his decision and alluded to information about an assassination plot against him. His resignation ended a political compromise leading to the election of Michel Aoun as president after more than two years of deadlock — and maintained Hezbollah’s place in government.

Hariri’s recent move is a political setback for a weak state that fails to provide basic services to its citizens. It clearly signals the need for a recalibration of power between different groups.

Although Hariri’s self-orchestrated departure caught the world by surprise, there is nothing shocking about the move. In Lebanon, political alliances — including those across sectarian lines — recurrently emerge and collapse. But however they evolve, they have always favored the interests of Lebanon’s political elite.

These fragile bargains are often disrupted by regional and international patrons and developments that occur beyond Lebanon’s borders. In that sense, Hariri’s surprising move is actually more of the same.

Cross-sectarian alliances are a tool to undercut political competition

Since Lebanon became independent from France in 1943, its history had been marked by recurring short-term political compromises that cut across sectarian lines. Most of these arrangements resulted after wars — such as the aftermath of the Lebanon Crisis of 1958, the civil war between 1975 and 1990 — and the armed skirmishes primarily between the Shiite Hezbollah Party and the predominantly Sunni Future Movement in 2008. Although the bargains after wars and political crises bring an end to chaos, they are still feeble and often collapse.

Hariri’s drive for compromise resulted from his own political woes and weakness in the Lebanese Sunni community. The municipal elections of 2016 and the Future Movement’s loss in Tripoli, one of the most important cities for dominance in the Lebanese Sunni community, compelled Hariri to set aside his differences with Hezbollah and Aoun. The motivation to compromise with Aoun was to undercut Ashraf Rifi, a former commander of Lebanon’s internal security forces, a former minister of justice and a former ally of Hariri.

Competition within confessional groups often explains why different leaders in Lebanon are willing to temporarily forego their differences and form alliances with political rivals. Hariri’s recent resignation resembles a move in October 2004 by his slain father, Rafiq Hariri. Only months before his assassination, Rafiq Hariri resigned to distance himself from pro-Syrian candidates and signal his intent to form a broad and cross-sectarian alliance that would implement U.N. Resolution 1559, which among other things called for Syria to withdraw its armed forces from Lebanon.

Although there is no doubt that Saad Hariri’s resignation is motivated by regional considerations, especially from Saudi Arabia, a closer look suggests that the ex-prime minister’s political move is primarily rooted in electoral considerations. His fellow contenders for power, Najib Mikati and Ashraf Rifi, likewise distanced themselves from broad cross-sectarian alliances to boost their popularity in the Lebanese Sunni community in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

By adopting hawkish views on Iran and Hezbollah and stoking sectarian fires, Hariri can conceivably appease the ideological zealots in the Lebanese Sunni community and, consequently, muster enough support to undercut other Sunni leaders in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This resignation likewise allows him to form loosely based alliances with other members of the political elite that equally aim to undercut intra-sectarian opponents.

Cross-sectarian alliances can provide stability

Political compromises in Lebanon are short-lived honeymoons between strange bedfellows. Yet, these temporary bargains allow for a degree of social normalcy and political stability. Against all odds, Lebanon has  weathered the storm of the ongoing Syrian civil war. This resiliency and ability of the Lebanese government to withstand the rippling effects of crises and wars across the Middle East is rooted in the mutual benefits that materialize for the political elite from cross-sectarian alliances.

The Aoun-Hariri compromise of 2016 demonstrates that some of these benefits ranged from political and judicial appointments to a new electoral law. Although this short-lived compromise allowed Lebanon’s political elite to pass the first national budget since 2005, a new tax law, and oil and gas decrees for future exploration, these developments demonstrate that in contrast to a region caught in the webs of an ongoing Cold War between Riyadh and Tehran, Lebanon’s political elite can cooperate and somewhat coexist.

Regional politics often disrupt these alliances

Whatever their benefits, these cross-sectarian alliances are often disrupted by regional and international players. Although what motivates Lebanon’s political elite to form alliances across sectarian lines is deeply rooted in domestic considerations, almost every political group has ties to regional and international patrons. These transnational relationships aggravate existing political discord and often become a reflection of regional rivalry and competition.

Viewing Lebanon as an ideological battleground for Saudi-Iranian rivalry is neither new nor unprecedented. For most of the Cold War, Lebanon was a battleground for competition between conservative and revolutionary regimes led by Iraq and Egypt respectively, and later between Syria and Israel.

In contrast to the Iranian-Saudi proxy war in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, it seemed that Lebanon was the only milieu where their local clients could uneasily coexist. Hariri’s recent resignation brought an end to this exception and clearly demonstrated that the ex-prime minister and the new regime in Saudi Arabia are adopting hawkish strategies to offset their perceived losses in Lebanon and the Middle East respectively.

Hariri’s political ploy may be meant primarily to shore up his position for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon. But his concern with electoral gains makes Lebanon vulnerable to a regional war and to renewed tension between various Lebanese groups. Until the next cross-sectarian alliance emerges, Lebanon will struggle to insulate itself from the Iranian-Saudi cold war.

The Israelis seem ready to fight Hezbollah, the Saudis are eager to use Lebanon as a battleground to deliver a blow to Iran, and the Americans want to curtail Iran’s influence through economic sanctions against its proxies. Hariri’s abrupt resignation in effect denies Hezbollah a strong Sunni partner and an effective cross-sectarian National Unity government.

Jeffrey G. Karam is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  Part of this piece was adapted from a longer analysis published by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.