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Hariri to back Hezbollah ally for Lebanese presidency

Opponents, including some of Hezbollah's political allies, warn the plan could lead to 'civil war'
Saad Hariri, former PM and son of assassinated ex-premier Rafik Hariri, has been experiencing financial woes at his Saudi-based construction firm (AFP)

Lebanese former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri intends to endorse Michel Aoun for the long vacant presidency, senior political sources said on Wednesday, in a further thickening of the political plot in the country.

Aoun, known to be an ally of Hezbollah, could be elected head of state as early as this month after an endorsement by Hariri, long an opponent of the Iran-backed Shia group.

Hariri would then become prime minister again under a plan that could reshape Lebanese politics. The plan has drawn opposition in his party and a final decision has not yet been taken, allies told Reuters.

The presidency, which is reserved for a Maronite Christian in the country's sectarian power-sharing arrangements, has been vacant for two and a half years due to political conflicts. According to a 1943 pact, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

Aoun, a veteran politician in his 80s, has long coveted the post of president, which is essentially a figurehead position as any decisions must be approved by the prime minister and speaker of parliament.

It was not immediately clear if Aoun's candidacy would enjoy enough backing among other politicians to secure the necessary support from two-thirds of the 128-seat parliament.

The next scheduled parliamentary session to elect a president is set for 31 October.

Lebanon has had 32 failed attempts at appointing a president since Michel Suleiman resigned in May 2014.

Opponents of Aoun's candidacy this time around include Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Shia Amal Movement and a close ally of Hezbollah, which itself has yet to comment.

Berri warned that accepting Aoun for the position could lead to a “civil war” - a potent phrase for a country which suffered 15 years of bloody civil strife - and could have “severe consequences that threaten coexistence".

Hariri, 46, has led the "March 14" alliance against Hezbollah and its allies since the 2005 assassination of his father and then prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Saad al-Hariri remains a fierce critic of Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

He led the Future Movement to election victory in 2009 and served as prime minister. But in January 2011 his government was overcome by a Hezbollah-led alliance that left his coalition and forced him to resign. Since then, he spent most of his time abroad.

The latest proposal, unthinkable until recently, casts new light on the predicament facing Hariri, whose standing as Lebanon's most influential Sunni politician has been shaken by a financial crisis at his Saudi-based construction business.

Saudi Oger has been hit hard by falling oil prices and cuts in Saudi state spending, laying off over 1,300 workers late last month after it lost the government contract to run the world’s largest Quran-printing press.

The troubles have led to a cash crunch in Hariri's Future Movement, and speculation that financial woes have forced Hariri to recalibrate his relationship with Hezbollah.

Diplomats also say Hariri has fallen from favour in Saudi Arabia, which these days cares far more about confronting Iranian influence in the Gulf and Syria than about Lebanon.

Observers suggest that Saudi Arabia cut off funding for Hariri last year amid a perceived failure to halt Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s vitriolic public tirades against the Gulf state.

Hariri’s intention to back Aoun, a known ally of Hezbollah, could be a further symptom of an apparent shift in Saudi foreign policy, which has seen Riyadh halt a $3bn funding package to the Lebanese army after Beirut failed to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

An image shows crowds attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran earlier this year (AFP)

Opposition from within

Two senior politicians told Reuters that Hariri had expressed his intention to nominate Aoun for the presidency as part of the power-sharing deal.

A third source, a member of Hariri's Future Movement, confirmed Hariri had expressed this intention, but that members of his own parliamentary bloc opposed it.

Fouad Siniora, a former prime minister and head of the Future Movement's parliamentary bloc, told the Daily Star newspaper that Hariri had told his MPs on Tuesday of his decision to support Aoun's candidacy, but added that there was "no final decision yet on this matter".

One of the senior sources said Hariri would announce his support for Aoun "within the coming few days".

The current government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam has been paralysed by rivalries exacerbated by regional conflict.

Last year, Hariri nominated another Hezbollah ally, Suleiman Franjieh, for the presidency, but Hezbollah stuck by Aoun.

Aoun, a former army commander, heads the largest Christian bloc in parliament and has a large following in the divided Christian community. He has been a political ally of Hezbollah since 2006.

A significant figure in Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, Aoun led one of two rival governments during the final years of the conflict. In 1990, the Syrian army forced him into exile.

He returned in 2005 after Syrian forces withdrew under international pressure following the Hariri assassination.

Aoun's main Christian rival, wartime enemy Samir Geagea, also endorsed Aoun's candidacy earlier this year.

Ghida Itani contributed to this report.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.