In Lebanon’s high-stakes election, the absence of the Sunni party adds to the uncertainty

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BEIRUT – A major party will not be on the ballot if Lebanon votes in Sunday’s parliamentary elections: a future movement led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, with strong ties to the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In January, Hariri announced his resignation from politics and said his party would not run in the by-elections, citing growing Iranian influence in Lebanon, sectarianism and the “erosion of the state”. His party did worse than expected from opinion polls, which saw them at gaining about 20 of the 128 seats in parliament.

The Future Movement and its allies were part of the pro-Saudi bloc whose cry for disarmament was the disarmament of Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian militant group and the political party that currently has a majority in parliament with its allies. Now, Hariri’s withdrawal from politics has created a void that could benefit Hezbollah when it is uncertain where the key base of Hariri supporters will vote for them.

From 2020: Lebanon names Saad Hariri as prime minister, almost a year after his resignation

Developments have created uncertainty about elections with high stakes. Their results could determine whether Lebanon, in its worst financial crisis of all time, receives help from the international community – at a time when some governments, like France, are reluctant to finance a government and politicians who are widely seen as corrupt.

The election is being closely monitored by millions of Lebanese at home and abroad to see if they oust members of the widely ridiculed political class. But Lebanon rarely expects change.

As groups fight to attract Hariri’s large Sunni Muslim followers, one leader has come forward aggressively to fill the void: Samir Gegeya, who rose to prominence as a right-wing Christian warlord during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Giga has been encouraged by what he claims because of his close ties to Hariri’s longtime ally Saudi Arabia and the promise of support from other Persian Gulf and Western countries if his party wins a parliamentary majority.

His team, Lebanese forces, along with an allied team, has emerged with its reputation in a relatively intact state following the Lebanese disaster of the past two years. Citizens are suffering from economic collapse and a banking crisis, blamed for government mismanagement and corruption, and from the trauma of a massive explosion in the capital, Beirut, in August 2020, which killed more than 200 people and damaged much of the city. Center

No senior member of the Lebanese army was involved in the blast. When protesters flooded the streets in 2019 demanding the ouster of political leaders, Gegea announced the resignation of four of his party’s ministers from the government.

Protesters have rejected his move as a political conspiracy. Geagea is one of the six leaders whom many see as Lebanon’s dictator – a deeply entrenched figure who stands in the way of even the slightest reform.

But even opponents of Geagea admit that their ministers are known for their unpleasant actions: Salem Zahran, a pro-Hezbollah analyst, said in a 2018 tweet, “Give credit where credit is due, their ministers are performing well and [shies] Away from corruption. “

During an interview at his home in the mountains of Lebanon, Gegeya stressed that all Lebanese problems, from government corruption to unemployment, could be solved by a parliament controlled by his party.

From 2019: In the midst of economic depression, young Lebanese see only two options: protest or leave

“If a government has the political will, then the international community, including countries like France and Saudi Arabia, will help the government,” he said. He further added that he had promised to help the country if a “serious” government was formed, but did not elaborate on what kind of assistance was promised or by which country.

He said a credible government would be able to continue negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, which is needed for Lebanon’s economic recovery and would also unlock aid from France.

All Lebanon needs, Gezia repeats, “a radical change in power.”

The Lebanese forces have established themselves as a party “for all Lebanese” and among its supporters, it is hoped that Saudi political support for Giag will attract Hariri voters.

Maha Yahya, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, said it was possible that Giaga would gain more seats from a growing base of Christian and Sunni voters, many of whom saw his party as the “only political party capable of standing” on the streets to Hezbollah, but also in parliament.

But when it comes to the Sunni vote, he said he suspects that despite requests from religious leaders to come out and vote, the future will not bother “a good part” of the movement’s followers.

“There is no representative of the Sunni community competing in parliament today [Hariri‚Äôs] There is a kind of national support or ability to be a community leader, at least not at this stage, “he continued.

In any case, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy, seems to have turned its back on Hariri, its longtime Sunni ally in Lebanon. A widely circulated op-ed published in early May in the Saudi newspaper Okaz accuses Hariri of “throwing himself into Tehran’s lap” and partly blames him for Lebanon’s fall.

Op-ed, appearing in Saudi Arabia’s strictly government-controlled press, said Hariri had spread the vote when he called on his followers to boycott the election.

“Abstaining from voting in the upcoming elections means that Sunni seats will go to Hezbollah allies, not just Sunnis, but all Lebanese historical enemies who once believed in Saad,” the author, Mohammed al-Said, wrote.

Hariri’s efforts to act as a peacekeeper in Lebanon’s shattered political system – including defending Hezbollah – have soured relations with Saudi Arabia. He was briefly detained by the Saudis in 2017 and forced to submit his resignation, which he later returned. He resigned after two years of protests across the country.

The Saudis continue to punish Lebanon. Last April, Riyadh announced it was cutting off agricultural and food imports from Lebanon as the state’s drug trade increased, as shipments from Lebanon often hid millions of Captagon pills – amphetamine tablets whose production analysts and law enforcement officials linked to Hezbollah.

As the Saudis consider their next option in Lebanon, many of Hariri’s supporters appear to be at odds with the other side’s appeal. “Sheikh Saad is not running, and we do not see anyone else representing us,” said Samir Hammoud, 40, referring to Hariri. “We are boycotting.”

Nader Durgham in Beirut and Suzy Haidamas in Washington contributed to this report.

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