Ousted Lebanese Leader Swallows Rivals’ Bitter Pill (from the NYT)



BEIRUT, Lebanon — There is a hint of Shakespeare in it all, if Lebanese politics did not feel like the pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler, where the loftiest principles soon get mired in the muck of corruption, prevarication and opportunism cast in the sincerest of words.

But on Tuesday, the day that was his last as prime minister here, Saad Hariri faced one of the bitterest realities of his brief but tumultuous political career. By virtue of what he calls his principles as a man — and what his foes and a few friends call his failures as a politician — his country was delivered, at least symbolically, to the very movement that stands accused of killing his father on the Beirut seafront in 2005.

Betrayed, he called himself after the choice of Hezbollah, Najib Miqati, was named as the prime minister designate on Tuesday. A victim of his own lies, say his foes, who engineered his ouster by bringing down his government this month. Perhaps it was both, in a place one politician called “a chemical equation, not a country.”

“Whoever killed Rafik Hariri in 2005 doesn’t want Saad Hariri to be in power,” he said at his palatial home, a short way from the government’s headquarters. “What’s happening today is that they are trying to achieve what they wanted to achieve in 2005.”

Tuesday was a climax of sorts in a crisis that began with the collapse of Mr. Hariri’s 14-month-old national unity government but really has its origins in his father’s assassination, which cemented the country’s division along questions of ideology, sect and class. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, preached reconciliation on Tuesday, while accusing his foes in Lebanon of stabbing the party in the back. As thuggish as they were angry, Mr. Hariri’s supporters took to the streets, where they burned a van belonging to journalists, pulled up the curb to throw rocks at cars and set barricades on fire to block streets.

The center of the crisis, though, remains Mr. Hariri, just 40, who despite his defeat may still prove to be the intangible that brings a more lasting end to a crisis over an international tribunal expected to name members of Hezbollah in his father’s murder.

“In political terms, certainly they need Saad,” said Tariq Mitri, a former minister in Mr. Hariri’s cabinet. “Any compromise solution on the tribunal needs Saad Hariri.”

Like his father, a shrewd politician hailed as generous and criticized as corrupt, Mr. Hariri prompts strong emotions. To the rank and file among Sunni Muslims, one of the country’s largest sects, he is the zaim, a leader of near feudal authority they address as Sheik Saad. As heir to his father, he manages to incarnate the ambitions and, more important, insecurities of the community, which have seen its power diminish as that of Shiites, represented by Hezbollah, grows.

“They have the power, and we don’t have anything,” said Rida Qabbani, 24, who joined scores of marauding youths trying to close a thoroughfare in the capital with trash bins. “We’re fighting with bottles, tires and garbage.”

To Mr. Hariri’s foes, he suffers when compared with the men around him. Some hold him up against President Bashar al-Assad, the son of another Arab leader who has emerged forcefully as his own strongman in Syria. More often, he is measured by the standards of his father, whom Mr. Hariri mentioned 11 times in the speech last week when declaring his intention to run again for prime minister. His father’s picture hangs everywhere, showcasing the skeptical leer of someone looking for leverage in a deal he knows he can close. Mr. Hariri is somnolent, famous in political circles for saying few words.

It was almost a refrain that his father would have never let events unfold as they did in this confrontation. A friend turned adversary, Walid Jumblatt, the Druse politician whose votes proved crucial in electing Mr. Miqati, said Mr. Hariri had failed “to see the realities on the ground.”

Asked if his father would have made the same choices in this crisis, Mr. Hariri replied: “It’s a very difficult question to answer. I went very far with what I wanted to achieve for this country, in this deal, and unfortunately I wasn’t met halfway.”

That deal is at the crux of his demise. He and Hezbollah, along with their allies, were negotiating a compromise on the tribunal, whose indictments are expected to be issued within two months. Hezbollah has denounced the tribunal as a tool of the United States and Israel and demanded that the Lebanese government end its cooperation.

Mr. Jumblatt said Mr. Hariri had agreed to do so, days before the indictments were handed to a judge in The Hague. “I told him, ‘What should I say to the president, to Bashar?’ He said, ‘Yes, I do accept.’ ” In the end, though, he said, Mr. Hariri did not.

“They will never trust Saad again,” said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist here.

Mr. Hariri said that he thought he had agreed to their demands as long as four months ago, but that they had expected him to act first. His colleagues say that would have amounted to political suicide — ending cooperation with a tribunal investigating his father’s death, with nothing in return. He suggested that Hezbollah negotiated in bad faith.

Asked if he was in a no-win situation, Mr. Hariri answered, “You tell me.”

Only a week ago, Mr. Hariri’s supporters believed they had enough votes in Parliament to bring him back to power. Then his support began to crumble. Mr. Jumblatt, who said he chose “stability at the expense of justice,” delivered enough of his bloc’s votes to Hezbollah and its allies. Then two crucial lawmakers flipped, including Mr. Miqati.

Mr. Hariri was forced to apologize to men he considered friends for mentioning them in off-color testimony to the tribunal that somehow managed to find its way on to a Lebanese television station. (He did not apologize to some others, whom he called prostitutes, tools and stooges.) He fought a war of words with politicians described by one of their own “as men who were political animals when their mothers were still nursing them.”

“Feeling this kind of backstabbing is quite harsh,” Mr. Hariri admitted.

“But,” he added, “that’s politics.”

Those very politics may spell his return. “I have popular support,” he said in the interview and, by all accounts, he is right. His standing as the leader of Sunni Muslims means he remains a player in politics rigidly divided among the country’s sects. As his father’s son, he and the position he takes will remain deeply resonant in whatever deal is worked out over the tribunal. And even in defeat, he suggested there might still be negotiations ahead on some quintessentially Levantine deal that would bring him into Mr. Miqati’s government.

“I have to sit with allies and decide what is the final decision,” he said.

Or, in the verdict delivered by Hassan Khalil, the publisher of Al Akhbar, a leftist newspaper that aligns itself with Mr. Hariri’s foes: “In Lebanon, it’s never over for anyone. You cannot write off anyone or anything in this country.”

Nada Bakri contributed reporting.


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