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 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 favor 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.”