Lebanon's Hariri, prime minister once again

Beirut (AFP) –


Saad Hariri, designated Thursday for a third term as Lebanon's prime minister, is the son of assassinated billionaire ex-premier Rafik Hariri and a long-time critic of Iran and its powerful Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

But after a bizarre resignation scare late last year, the political scion is poised to make what could be a pragmatic return, now tasked with forming a cabinet in a parliament dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.

The stocky 48-year-old, who sports trademark slicked-back hair and a closely cropped beard, was thrust onto the political stage after his father was assassinated in a February 2005 car bomb attack.

But he has struggled to fill his father's shoes, ending short his first term in office and threatening to do the same with his second.

Already a two-time premier, Hariri sent shockwaves across the region last year by resigning from office while in Saudi Arabia and blaming Iran-backed Hezbollah for destabilising the region.

The announcement triggered a flurry of international interventions that eventually saw Hariri return to his post, adopting a more conciliatory tone towards the group.

He also blamed the Lebanese Movement for his father's death, but has had little success in reining in the group, which was the sole faction to retain its arsenal after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

His Future Movement lost a third of its seats on May 6, when Lebanon held its first legislative election in nine years and voters reinforced the Shiite movement's parliamentary weight.

He will now be tasked with forming a cabinet -- typically a drawn-out process involving horse-trading among Lebanon's competing political forces.

- Rollercoaster political career -

Hariri launched his political career at the urging of his family, after his father's death.

He left his post in Saudi Arabia running the Oger firm that was the basis of his family's business empire.

Back in Beirut, Saad played a key role in mass demonstrations that culminated in the end of the Syrian government's 30-year military presence in Lebanon.

His political career has been something of a rollercoaster, beginning with his August 2007 formation of the Future Movement.

In Lebanon's 2009 legislative elections -- the country's last since this month's parliamentary polls -- the Sunni-majority bloc won just over a quarter of the parliament's 128 seats.

Hariri has been regarded as the de facto leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community, despite the occasional ribbing of detractors who mocked him as a political novice with sometimes hesitant formal Arabic.

Hariri is generally soft-spoken during his public pronouncements, eschewing the table-thumping style preferred by some of his political rivals.

His close friends say he enjoys cooking and exercising, and was known for making appearances at Beirut bike rides and the city's annual marathon.

- Deposed, exiled, returned -

Hariri began his first term as prime minister in November 2009, forming a unity government with Hezbollah and its allies after marathon negotiations.

But the confrontations with the Iran-backed movement had begun six months earlier, when Hezbollah fighters seized parts of Beirut following street battles with Future Movement supporters.

Hariri stayed on as prime minister for several rocky years, but in January 2011, Hezbollah and its allies abruptly withdrew their ministers from Lebanon's cabinet.

The move collapsed Hariri's first government while he was meeting with then-US president Barack Obama in Washington.

The deposed premier stayed in self-imposed exile in France and Saudi Arabia for several years, citing "security" concerns.

But in 2016, he decided to back a presidential bid by his rival, Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun, a move that ended more than two years of political stalemate and saw him return to head a unity government that again included Hezbollah.

Hariri's return to Lebanon, and to the premiership, gave him the chance to once again assume leadership of the Sunni community, though some detractors criticised his willingness to make "deals" with Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran and Hezbollah of effectively holding Lebanon hostage, even pulling the plug on funding for Lebanon's under-equipped military to protest against what it deemed undue influence.

Hariri has Saudi citizenship and has tirelessly praised the kingdom, but the change of the guard in the country appears to have left the Lebanese leader with fewer allies in Riyadh than his father had.

His wife Lama Bashir-Azm, who is of Syrian origin, and their three children live in Saudi Arabia and remained there during his tenures as prime minister.