A decision by Sunni Muslim leader Saad Al-Hariri to withdraw from Lebanese politics opens the way for Shia Hezbollah to extend its already deep grip on the country and turn it ever more into a bastion of Iranian influence in the Mediterranean.
Three-time Prime Minister Hariri said Monday he would step down from public life and boycott May’s parliamentary elections, citing Iranian influence as one of the reasons he sees little hope for positive change.
It ushers in a new phase in Lebanon’s sectarian politics, governed by a system of power-sharing among its many sects, and adds to the uncertainties facing a country suffering from a financial meltdown that is the greatest threat to representing stability since the 1975-90 civil war.
Hariri’s move will hasten the fragmentation of the Sunni community that his family dominated with Saudi support for 30 years before Riyadh cut him off and abandoned a Lebanon policy that had cost billions but failed to contain Hezbollah.
Established in 1982 by Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards, the heavily armed Hezbollah has long been the strongest faction in Lebanon, gradually transforming the country into one of several Arab states in which Iran’s Shia Islamist government wields major influence, and Lebanon a scene of their struggle with the Arab Gulf States.
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Hezbollah is financially stronger than most in Lebanon and well positioned to capitalize on Hariri’s withdrawal. A source familiar with Hezbollah’s mindset said the group is already considering potential gains for its allies in the Sunni community, typically local politicians who lack the national clout of Hariri’s party.
But Hezbollah is also wary of new challenges, including the risk that local and regional opponents will seek to replace Hariri with more combative figures seeking confrontation rather than compromise, as he has done in recent years.
Hariri’s political earthquake comes amid an escalation in the broader struggle between Iran and the US-allied Gulf Arab States. The Houthis, allied with Iran, launched two missile attacks on the United Arab Emirates this month.
The UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen that says Hezbollah is helping the Houthis.
On Saturday, a Gulf Arab envoy handed the Lebanese government a list of conditions for unfreezing ties, which a Lebanese diplomatic source said included setting a timeframe for implementing an 18-year-old UN resolution calling for Hezbollah to disarm .
According to political sources, the request in Beirut was seen as an escalation by the Gulf states, which expelled Lebanese ambassadors in October over criticism of a Hezbollah-affiliated minister about the war in Yemen.
The list, which the Gulf envoy called confidence-building proposals, also reflected Western calls for the elections to be held on time.
However, with the Sunni political scene in disarray, some analysts are anticipating calls for a postponement.
Many observers believe this would accommodate all key players apart from Hezbollah’s opponents, which include the Christian Lebanese Forces, a Saudi Arabia-allied party that hopes the majority Hezbollah fought with its allies in 2018 won can be overthrown.
“If the major powers in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, believe it is in their interest to postpone the elections, they will do so,” said Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor of Annahar Daily.
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If there is an election, the subsequent horse-trading for a new government is likely to be even more difficult than usual.
This uncertainty does not bode well for the chances of government action to deal with the economic crisis that has been simmering for the ruling elite since 2019.
Hariri’s decision turned an already complicated electoral landscape upside down.
Dozens of Parliament’s 128 seats are affected.
It will not only affect the 20 seats his Future movement won in 2018, but many more won by other groups in local alliances with Future. There is currently no Sunni with a nationwide network like Hariri, who lost a third of his seats in 2018 but maintained his position as the leading Sunni.
“A Free Hand”
One of his brothers, Bahaa, may run or endorse candidates but has yet to announce his plans. Bahaa has criticized Saad for his alignments with Hezbollah.
Druze politician, said Walid Jumblatt Reuters Hariri’s step means “a free hand for Hezbollah and the Iranians”.
Sunnis allied with Hezbollah won seats from Future in 2018.
But for Hezbollah, labeled a terrorist group by the United States, the situation may not be so clear cut.
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Because while Hariri’s early career was shaped by the confrontation with Hezbollah, which culminated in a brief civil war in 2008, he later made compromises that accommodated the group and its allies.
In his speech on Monday, Hariri said his compromises prevented a civil war.
“I’m not sure how happy Hezbollah is with Hariri’s decision,” said Heiko Wimmen of the International Crisis Group.
“It is in Hezbollah’s interest to have at least the appearance of a functioning political system in which everyone participates, including the Sunnis.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect Middle East Monitor’s editorial policies.