Can Lebanon's Hariri work with Hezbollah?

A Monitor reporter sits down with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in his mansion as he discusses the legacy of his father and a fresh push for reconciliation.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Lebanon's Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri arrives to begin consultation meetings with the parliamentary bloc on the formation of a new government at Parliament in Beirut Monday.

A deadly street clash between rival political groups this weekend – the worst factional violence in the Lebanese capital in over a year – underlines the challenges lying ahead for Saad Hariri, Lebanon's top Sunni politician, who has been appointed Lebanon's next prime minister.

One woman was killed and several other people wounded, including a Lebanese soldier, Sunday night when rival Shiite and Sunni partisans traded gunfire in the Aisha Bakkar district of west Beirut.

The outbreak of violence was a reminder of the lingering tensions that exist in Lebanon, even though the country's political leaders have made efforts lately to achieve reconciliation.

Mr. Hariri was selected on Saturday by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to become prime minister, three weeks after the US- and Saudi-backed March 14 coalition narrowly won a parliamentary election, defeating the opposition, led by the militant Shiite group, Hezbollah.

We "will safeguard the constitution, [state] institutions, sovereignty, independence, and the project of building the Lebanese state," Hariri said after meeting Mr. Suleiman at the presidential palace.

Political heir

Hariri is the son and political heir of Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman and a former prime minister who was assassinated in a truck bomb explosion in February 2005.

On Monday, Hariri began formal consultations with parliamentary blocs as an initial stage in forming a 30-seat government. Some tough bargaining can be expected in the days ahead.

The opposition is pressing for a veto-wielding one-third quota of cabinet seats that will allow it to block any legislation with which it disagrees.

Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, said in a statement after meeting with Hariri, that Lebanon needed "a national consensus cabinet and a real partnership."

The ruling March 14 coalition is inclined to refuse to allow the opposition to gain a third of the cabinet seats, fearing the same gridlock that has dogged successive governments since 2005. One option under consideration is to grant a few seats to allies of Suleiman, allowing the president to hold the balance of power in the cabinet.

Hariri at home in his mansion

"All doors are open," Hariri told the Monitor in an interview Sunday in his sprawling mansion in the Koreitem district of west Beirut. "It will take serious discussions to unite the country for the sake of confronting the challenges that lie ahead."

On a break between paying traditional courtesy calls to former Lebanese prime ministers, Hariri slipped into some jeans and ate a lunch of rice, fish, and turkey along with around a dozen of his political colleagues and advisers. He listened quietly while his aides recounted humorous anecdotes about past Lebanese prime ministers.

A businessman who lived much of his life in Saudi Arabia and has a taste for Cuban cigars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Hariri, with his goatee and slicked-back hair was never expected to follow his father's footsteps into Lebanon's fractious political arena. However, he was catapulted into the limelight following his father's death in 2005. Syria was widely blamed for the assassination and withdrew its troops from Lebanon two months later in the face of mass street protests in Beirut and international pressure.

From business to politics

It was a brutal political apprenticeship for the soft-spoken business tycoon, then only in his mid-30s. Lebanon was mired in a protracted political crisis highlighted by a sporadic campaign of assassinations of politicians and security officials.

The crisis peaked in May 2008 when factional fighting flared, bringing the country to the edge of civil war. A compromise deal brokered by Qatar eased tensions and provided months of stability leading to the parliamentary elections on June 7.

A spirit of reconciliation with Hezbollah

Both camps appear to have little appetite for more confrontation and deadlock. Lebanon's leaders lately have sought to cultivate a spirit of reconciliation and compromise, aided by a rapprochement under way between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which respectively back the two competing factions here, ending months of bitterness between the two countries. Last week, Hariri held talks with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, in only their second encounter since 2005.

The troubles of the past four years have dampened enthusiasm for a fresh confrontation with the powerful Hezbollah over its determination to keep its formidable arsenal of weapons.

In a conciliatory nod to Sheikh Nasrallah, Hariri has said that the fate of Hezbollah's arms should be left to dialogue sessions among Lebanon's top leaders. He has also highlighted the threat to Lebanon posed by Israel's right-leaning government.

"The Lebanese – and that means all Lebanese parties – fear that Israel will revert to adventures in order to deviate from pressure to move forward on the Palestinian track [of the Middle East peace process]," he says.

Such comments are intended to reassure Hezbollah that Hariri will not seek to challenge the Shiite party's military autonomy. In exchange, however, he expects Hezbollah and its allies not to obstruct his ability to govern the nation as prime minister.

The apprenticeship is over

His four-year political apprenticeship is over, and Hariri finally is moving out of his father's shadow to chart his own legacy. Immediately after his meeting with Suleiman on Saturday, the new prime minister-designate drove to downtown Beirut and prayed before his father's tomb.

In the Koreitem mansion, he paused a moment in a small wood-paneled study, the walls, shelves, and desk covered with photographs of his father and family.

"Yesterday was a day of unbelievable emotions and memories and hardships," he says, reflecting on his appointment to the premiership. "I hope he – may his soul rest in peace – knows we are doing everything to continue his legacy. But at the end of the day, you can never bring back Rafik Hariri no matter what you do."

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