In a gathering Monday to commemorate Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination, his son sought to rally his supporters against a new government that he says will lead Lebanon deeper into the embrace of Iran and Syria.
Saad Hariri, whose coalition government was toppled last month, used the occasion to formally announce his opposition to the new administration now being formed. Led by his successor, Najib Mikati, the dominant partner is the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement.
Speaking to several thousand supporters, he also called for an opposition rally for March 14 – an attempt to rekindle the huge demonstration on that date six years ago that drew some 1 million protesters and was the pinnacle of the Beirut spring protests against Syria's domination of Lebanon.
“We are going on March 14 to say no,” said Hariri. “No to the betrayal of coexistence … no to the armed internal tutelage [of Hezbollah], no to moving Lebanon to an axis rejected by the Lebanese,” he added, referring to the so-called "axis of resistance," which groups Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, among others, against Israel and Western influence in the Middle East.
Hariri based his movement's opposition to the new government on its continued support for the United Nations-based tribunal investigating his father's assassination and to protect Lebanon from the "predominance of weapons," a reference to the arms held by Hezbollah.
Uphill battle for popular support
But Hariri faces an uphill struggle to recreate the wave of popular support that followed the assassination of his father. At that time, a series of mass demonstrations in central Beirut toppled the pro-Syrian government and led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
Since then, however, Lebanon has been wracked by internal crises, assassinations, a war with Israel, and political deadlock, culminating in the collapse of Hariri’s coalition government last month when ministers allied to Hezbollah resigned.
The resignations came after Hariri refused to yield to pressure to cease cooperation with the Netherlands-based tribunal. The first set of indictments, which are expected to be released in the coming weeks, reportedly will name members of Hezbollah. Hezbollah denies any involvement in Hariri’s assassination.
In his speech today, Hariri revealed that negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Syria prior to his government’s collapse had centered on the idea of holding a national reconciliation conference in which Lebanese leaders would confess and apologize for past crimes going back three decades or more. The conference, which was to be held in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, was intended to help dilute the fallout from the tribunal’s investigation.
“We negotiated in all honesty for the sake of Lebanon’s interest, but we were met once again with a request to surrender, and not to reconcile, by those who don’t want a dialogue because they consider themselves bigger than Lebanon,” he said, explaining why the talks had failed.
Hariri's successor backed by Hezbollah
Hariri was replaced as prime minister by Najib Mikati, a Sunni billionaire businessman from the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli who won the backing of Hezbollah and its allies.
Many Lebanese, even those unhappy with Hariri’s fall from the premiership, say they are willing to give Mikati a chance. Mikati is regarded as a moderate and as politically neutral, despite his close personal ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria, along with Iran, is a backer of Hezbollah.
Mikati had hoped to form another coalition government, a goal that appears to have been dashed by Hariri’s announcement that he and his allies plan to stand in opposition.
Hezbollah, reassured that its formidable military wing will be protected by Mikati, is likely to play a limited role in the new government. Sheikh Nabil Qawq, a senior Hezbollah official, said Sunday that the new government “should help remove Lebanon from the American minefield.”
“The party [Hezbollah] does not oppose the participation of any side in government,” he said, “but it opposes American conspiracy plans and its attempts to threaten Lebanon’s stability and national unity.”
New PM under pressure not to cooperate with tribunal
The tribunal set up to investigate Hariri's assassination is partly funded by Lebanon and includes Lebanese judges. If Mikati’s new government halts the funding and withdraws the judges, it could plunge Lebanon into confrontation with the UN and Western powers.
Given that Hezbollah endorsed Mikati for the premiership, analysts say it will be difficult for the new prime minister to maintain Lebanon’s support for the tribunal in opposition to the wishes of the powerful Shiite party.
Still, so far, Mikati has been vague on his plans for the tribunal. Last week, he angered some of Hezbollah's allies by backing a statement released by a gathering of Lebanon’s top Sunni religious and political figures which, in part, called on the Lebanese government to continue cooperating with the tribunal.