BEIRUT: Saad Hariri’s third term as prime minister of Lebanon was mired in political rivalries that obstructed reforms needed to save the country from economic collapse.
Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim politician since the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri in 2005, Hariri quit Tuesday in the face of mass protests against an entire sectarian ruling elite accused of milking the state for decades.
It took Hariri, 49, nine months to piece together the coalition government bringing together nearly all of Lebanon’s feuding parties, including Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement.
But he entered his third government weakened by a balance of power that had shifted in favor of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which together with its allies won a majority of MPs in 2018 elections while Hariri lost a third of his.
After sealing agreement on the new Cabinet in January, he was focused on reviving an economy that has suffered from years of regional turmoil and is throttled by one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens.
But efforts to enact the reforms to curb state waste and corruption ran into the same problems that have faced previous such efforts: resistance from politicians determined to defend their vested interest and financial gains.
As protesters took to the streets earlier this month, Hariri described problems he said he had faced fixing the electricity sector, which bleeds $2 billion from the Treasury every year while failing to produce enough power for Lebanon.
After “meeting after meeting, committee after committee, proposal after proposal, I got at last to the final step and someone came and said, ‘It doesn’t work,’” said Hariri, whose family has been part of the system for decades.
Presenting the difficulties of implementing reform more widely, Hariri said every committee required a minimum of nine ministers to keep everyone happy.
“A national unity government? OK, we understand that. But committees of national unity? The result is that nothing works.”
Political sources said Hariri had wanted to appease protesters through a major reshuffle that would have left him in place while removing some top-tier politicians.
These would have included Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, both allies of Hezbollah, which resisted the idea and wanted the government to stay on.
Admitting defeat Tuesday, Hariri said he had hit a “dead end.”
“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said.
Hariri’s career was built on the patronage of Gulf Arab states, the deployment of his family fortune - spending large amounts of it in Lebanon to finance a political network - and feelings of respect among many Lebanese for his father.
The early years of Hariri’s political career were defined by his close alliance with Saudi Arabia and by confrontations with the Lebanese allies of Syria and Iran, chief among them Hezbollah.
Hariri formed his first coalition government in 2009 after the anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah coalition he led at the time won a parliamentary majority with Saudi backing.
That “March 14” alliance gradually disintegrated in the years that followed. His Cabinet was toppled in early 2011 when Hezbollah and its allies quit over tensions linked to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is also investigating Rafik Hariri’s assassination.
In the ensuing few years, Saad remained mostly outside Lebanon on security grounds.
As the war in neighboring Syria escalated, Lebanon became gripped by tensions linked to the conflict.
Hariri meanwhile was suffering a financial blow from the collapse of his family’s construction business in Saudi Arabia. This weighed on the finances of his political network in Lebanon. He made a series of political concessions in Lebanon that resulted in him eventually backing Hezbollah’s Christian ally Michel Aoun for the presidency. The deal saw Hariri become premier for a second time in 2016.
He remained an opponent of Hezbollah but his focus was largely on Lebanon’s economic troubles.
Hariri’s ties with Saudi Arabia, furious at Hezbollah’s expanding role in Lebanon, suffered. They hit a nadir in November 2017 when it was widely acknowledged that Riyadh had forced him to resign and held him in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia and Hariri publicly deny this version of events, though French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that Hariri was being held in Saudi Arabia.