Anti-government protests in Lebanon went into their second month with this evening demonstration in downtown Beirut on November 17. (Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lebanese Protestors ‘Continue to be Heard’ by Political Elite

Safadi withdraws name for consideration as prime minister, recommends that embattled Hariri continue

As anti-government protests in Lebanon go into their second month, people in the streets continue to make their voices heard.

Over the weekend, Mohammad Safadi, a former finance minister seen as a member of the country’s old political guard, asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration for the job of prime minister, a position vacated with the October 29 resignation of Saad al-Hariri.

Hariri, now a caretaker prime minister, resigned along with his entire government due to popular dissatisfaction with high unemployment and a rising cost of living brought on by crushing foreign debt and perceived corruption among the country’s elites.

The ongoing street protests have brought much of the country to a halt, starting with finance and higher education as banks and universities closed down.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Safadi said Hariri should be made prime minister once more, as he enjoys the support of President Michel Aoun and the country’s Shi’ite groups, most notably the Iran-aligned Hizbullah.

Roudy Hanna, a protestor who resides in Beirut, called Safadi’s nomination a “joke” – but does not want a return to the status quo.

“I am against Hariri becoming prime minister again,” Hanna told The Media Line.

Luna Safwan, a freelance journalist, insists that Safadi’s withdrawal is a good indicator of the power the demonstrators hold.

“This withdrawal proves two things,” she told The Media Line. “One, politicians listen to the streets when they want to, [and] two, our streets in Lebanon are now powerful. We took down one cabinet, and now took down another before it was even formed. This gives a boost of encouragement to the protestors, that they are being heard.”

Nevertheless, Safwan believes that Hariri will eventually return to the job of prime minister because he is the top pick of Lebanon’s current political parties, and also because he appears amenable to the protesters’ demands that he fill his cabinet with technocrats rather than politicians.

“It is almost impossible for someone 100 percent independent, with no political history related to any Sunni [Muslim] party, to come to power as prime minister in Lebanon unless a miracle happens,” she stated.

Lebanon’s 1943 National Pact divides the leadership of the state along sectarian lines, stipulating that the prime minister be a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite, and the president a Christian.

Despite Hariri having the support of Aoun and some Shi’ite groups, the sides disagree on the composition of a new cabinet should he resume his role. According to Hosam Arar, a political activist based in Beirut, Hariri wants to meet the protesters’ demands while Aoun’s bloc would prefer to retain some former power brokers.

“Hariri wants technocrats only,” Arar said. “President Aoun and Hizbullah want technocrats and politicians.”

Dr. Hassan Marhig, a lecturer at the Galilee College in Nazareth, argues that Hariri is in an even more difficult spot, as he is trying to appease forces in Lebanon while at the same time looking outward.

“[Hariri] does not want to sever his relationships abroad, nor does he want the relationship with Hizbullah to return to the abyss [just] because the West and Saudi Arabia have explicitly requested that Hizbullah not be in a new government,” Marhig told The Media Line.

So there is internal and external confusion.

“Hariri is trying to reach comprehensive agreements for all Lebanese and [also] satisfy the outside, but he has failed,” he said, “so the protests continue and take the facts toward the unknown.”

Still, the unrest is at a critical point, as the demonstrations have impacted Lebanon’s economy.

Joyce Karam, an adjunct professor at George Washington University in Washington, believes that political change will be tempered by further economic suffering.

“Lebanon is at a very important juncture,” she told The Media Line.

“There is lot of hope that the unity and persistence seen through the protests can lead to a more transparent and accountable system of governance, but the clock is also ticking when it comes to economic collapse,” Karam explained. “Experts estimate four months, and we are already seeing currency and fuel shortages across the country.”

Hanna believes that Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis will only lead to more pressure on the political elite to bow to protesters’ demands, including for a more independent candidate for prime minister.

“Time is on our side. The [politicians] will feel more pressure with the economic crisis getting worse, and by then I believe [the protestors] will have enough leverage to nominate someone,” Hanna said.

“Why not have a woman as prime minister,” he asked, “when the time is right to nominate someone?”

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