October 29, 2019 / 5:51 PM / 19 days ago

After struggling to reform, Hariri quits as Lebanese PM

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Saad al-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 Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon October 29, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim politician since the assassination of his father, Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, Hariri quit on 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 the Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah and the Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

But he entered his third government weakened by a balance of power that had shifted in favour 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 of the top tier politicians.

These would have included Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, both allies of Hezbollah, which resisted the idea and wanted the government to stay on.

Admitting defeat on 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.

“To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

FINANCIAL PRESSURES AND POLITICAL COMPROMISE

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 confrontations with the Lebanese allies of Syria and Iran, chief among them Hezbollah.

A U.N.-backed court charged five Hezbollah members over the assassination of his father. The suspects have been tried in absentia by a U.N.-backed tribunal. Hezbollah denies any role in the murder, and Saad al-Hariri has said he was not seeking revenge for the killing.

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 Rafik al-Hariri tribunal. In the ensuing few years, Saad remained mostly outside Lebanon on security grounds.

As the war in neighbouring 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.

Hariri 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.

Ties with Gulf Arab states have warmed of late. Hariri visited the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, declaring that Lebanon had been promised investments and financial support. But it had not materialised by the time he resigned.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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