On 3 November 2017, Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri flew to Riyadh, from where he announced his resignation the very next day through the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite news station. Speculations raged that he was forced to resign as his declarations was said to have taken even his closest advisers by surprise. Hariri’s resignation coincided with the arrest of eleven influential Saudi princes charged with corruption, including famous multibillionaire al-Waleed Bin Talal (quickly remembered as the target of Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign).
Analyses started proliferating on all media platforms, but no coherent narrative tying the arrest of the princes to the Hariri resignation emerged. Those who favored an economic-based explanation read the Hariri resignation as linked to his historically embattled Saudi Oger company. This was especially so for those who viewed the arrests in Saudi Arabia through the framework of trying to initiate reforms. Seen through this lens by prominent newspapers such as the New York Times or the Guardian, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was hailed as cracking down on corruption, or performing “necessary surgery on the country’s economy.” Others pointed at the big elephant in the room. In his resignation statement, Hariri squarely put the blame on an unbearably encroaching Iran. Another piece of the puzzle was Hariri’s meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei, the day before he traveled to Riyadh. On the one hand, some speculated that Velayati had relegated threatening messages to Hariri which would have pushed him to resign. On the other hand, others took this meeting as a signal of a growing rapprochement between Hariri and Iran which angered the Saudi crown prince. Then there was this mysterious missile fired from Yemen to Riyadh, on the same day (but ironically after) Hariri resigned, which some saw as the trigger of a Saudi fury against Hizballah (seen as having been asked by Iran to fire the missile). Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV the very next day to declare that Hariri was forced to resign. Yet it was only two weeks later, on 20 November, that Nasrallah clarified Hizballah sent neither arms nor fighters to Yemen.
In the few days subsequent to his declaration, there was no follow up statement from Hariri himself or official declarations coming out of his party, the Future Movement. Thus a cloud of mystery around the prime minister’s move prompted a flurry of mainstream and social media activity.
Debates raged on for two weeks, with memes and hashtags such as #WhereisSaad?, #FreeSaad, and a website (http://freesaadhariri.com), to track the minutes since he stepped down. Some social media theories even went as far as to say that it was Hariri’s brother Bahaa, in alliance with the Saudis and other more hawkish political actors in Lebanon, who instigated the resignation. It would not be until more than a week after the resignation for Future Movement members to start criticizing the idea of a possible replacement of Hariri. Meanwhile, political analyses in Lebanon and beyond, from mainstream to social media at large, split mainly on the usual ideological binaries where Iran was a compulsive regional provocateur responsible for all the mounting tension; or Saudi Arabia was trying yet another time to escalate because of the humiliation faced in Yemen.
Hariri’s resignation resembles a plot with several main components missing, opening the space for speculation and analysis. Some may have seen the movie Wag the Dog, in which Robert De Niro’s character hires a Hollywood producer, played by Dustin Hoffman, to stage a war that never took place in order to divert the public’s attention from a scandal surrounding the president of the United States. But instead of one single producer, the unfolding events following Hariri’s resignation saw an array of audiences, political actors, journalists, and producers of knowledge of all sorts engaging in a complex and reactive digital interaction.
Traditionally, political actors would step in with an armada of rhetorical devices to fill the gap between inexplicable events and meaningful politics. But today, through new media technology, fragments of information, data, and analyses—while contradictory and vague— were sufficient to produce what we could call “ideological legitimacy.” At the same time, political elites did not need to present an official narrative in order to justify actions. In this vein, media is not merely an instrument used by political actors: it fundamentally alters how politics gets done.
Media has become a site where ideological battles can unfold with little effort by protagonists, thus providing a breathing space for official channels that no longer need to produce well rounded narratives. It can also be the site of the creation of a specific type of nationalism that overshadows meaning and marks its end. However, one of the drawbacks of this phenomenon is that the interaction between media and audience ends up merging the various antagonistic political currents and therefore neutralizing and depoliticizing them. We will show how this unfolded between two time frames: Paula Yacoubian’s interview with Hariri in Riyadh and her subsequent appearance a week later on Hisham Haddad’s show La Hon wa-Bas on LBCI (where she restaged the initial interview). The digital exchange that occurs between these two interviews helps build the script.
Paul Yacoubian Interviews Hariri
A week after the Hariri resignation, on 11 November, and in a televised interview with Paula Yacoubian, a journalist with Hariri-affiliated al-Mustaqbal TV, the prime minister appeared for the first time since he announced his resignation. He was pale and visibly tired, his speech slow and at times not well articulated. Analyses (and even “language specialists”) abounded on Hariri’s body language and about all the unsaid that was said. Overall, the interview was interpreted as a scaling back of the Saudi rhetoric. Hariri promised to come back to Lebanon and discuss his resignation with President Michel Aoun, who had not accepted the resignation and publicly expressed that he was worried for his fate. Although by now the resignation clearly looked like a Saudi decision even by the implicit admission of the Future Movement, the interview performed the task of re-focusing “the event” on a “nationalist logic” that we will explain in the below.
One main idea Hariri constantly repeated in the interview was Hizballah’s alleged intervention in Yemen, and Iran’s role in the region. This in turn, he claimed, had a bearing on his security and from there on that of the Lebanese. This repetition served to shift the conversation from a discussion of political ideology and foreign policy to that of the fate of Hariri’s person which projected what we propose to call an “embodied apolitical nationalism.” This was not just orchestrated by Yacoubian herself and Hariri, but by a complex set of mainstream and social media reactions and political actors’ declarations. For one thing, Yacoubian kept on updating an audience with tweets about her arrival to Riyadh, reassuring that the situation looked fine, and referring to posts and tweets on social media throughout the interview.
The interview gave a sense of urgency and danger that surpassed the mystery shrouding Hariri’s state in Riyadh:
Yacoubian (Y): When are you coming back?
Hariri (H): Your problem Paula is that you keep on cutting me.
Y: But I have to Mr. PM, this interview is not an ordinary one
H: . . . and I know it’s not an ordinary one which is why I need you and me to calm down
H: Because the Lebanese all of them . . . (swallows his saliva) want to know what’s happening . . .
H: I wanted to do a positive “shock”. I wanted to do a positive “shock” to the Lebanese so that we can assess why we are a dangerous place right now.
This sense of urgency enabled a focus on the human affective element even if Hariri was not coherent all the time. For one thing, Hariri stated that he did not answer any of the concerned messages and did not offer any explanation because “I wanted people to have a chance to take the time to think of what is happening and why I did this, which is why I didn’t like to speak”. Further, the link was explicitly and consistently made between Hariri’s patriotic positions and his physical well-being. The conversation throughout the interview repeatedly came back to how Hariri had to put his private interests aside for the greater public—patriotic—good. Nevertheless, Yacoubian recurrently pushed him to clarify his situation, which created a friction between what he planned to talk about and what he (and Yacoubian) may have been repressing:
H: I was breached security wise so I need to regroup and fix this . . . And you know yourself Paula that at some point I had financial difficulties
H: I am talking with the various relevant agencies in Lebanon so that I can come back soon
Y: Seems that you are not free in your movements
H: Me, I am not free… Look, here in Saudi Arabia, I am free of movement, I can travel tomorrow. But I want to do… See I have a family, it’s my right to protect my family . . .
Y: But your family is here (Saudi) and everyone is saying that the presence of your family.. that you can’t move because they are here…
H: No no no . . . Me, I have a family and I saw what happened to me when my father was martyred… I don’t want to see my kids in the same situation, you guys have to allow me to take a few precautions, and I’m not talking of months, or weeks but I am talking about a few days . . .
After this climatic instant as Hariri struggled to catch his breath, Yacoubian turned the tension into a positive outcome:
Y: You’re back to Lebanon in a few days?
Y: I need to tell you that Lebanon is all with you, there is a tsunami called Saad al-Hariri
The only moment where Hariri came close to explaining the political situation was when he said that a missile was launched from Yemen and that a Lebanese party was present there. But when Yacoubian replies with “this is not something new” and that his sudden resignation remains a mystery, the subject switches back to Hariri’s person spoken. The two actors switch to the third person emphasizing that the person itself is a cause on its own. As Hariri kept shifting between willing and not willing to assume responsibility when other parties put Lebanon “between two axes”, Yacoubian came to his rescue:
Y: What is the fate of the country if Saad al-Hariri does not want to take this responsibility?
H: Saad al-Hariri will take this responsibility, and he will come back to the country… and I want to sacrifice to the Lebanese people, but I need to sacrifice with conditions . . .
Yacoubian’s interview was the opening of a very intense social media and TV activity offering countless theories about Hariri’s conditions. One particular image that kept being shared from the interview was that of a man appearing behind Yacoubian while Hariri looks at him and lowers his gaze.
Ripple Effect in the Social Media Sphere
Building on the snippets of information at their disposal, social media actors came up with all kind of theories in order to deal with political uncertainty through memes and posts that contributed to the construction of this nationalistic logic around Hariri’s resignation. Lebanese auto-derisive humor, a coping mechanism built over years of political turmoil and uncertainty, heavily colored this digital theorization that made up for the stark information deficit. By photoshoping Hariri’s own tweets to make it look as though he was calling for help and that he was truly under house arrest in Saudi Arabia, twitteratis and social media influencers derided the situation of their prime minister, and in the process, made fun of their own predicament as Lebanese.
In that same typical auto-derisive vein, social media posts revealed an imagined national duty to “save our prime minister” —that was fueled by the state’s official discourse that declared Hariri detained, and reinforced it simultaneously. Most of these memes exemplified very typical actions or gestures that Lebanese do such picking people up from the airport when they come home:
This temporary and imagined national unity manifested on social media, was not only as a result of a perceived foreign aggression, but also explicitly pitted the Lebanese humoragainst the aggressor.
The different narratives both on mainstream and social media constructed Hariri as ‘ours’, and strived to take some sort of ownership of him in a paternalistic way, which conveniently fitted the state discourse on the issue of his detention.
[Translation: "We are a people who don't leave our imprisoned ones in prisons" "Freedom to Sheikh Saad"]
Two noteworthy memes widely circulating not just on social media but more private communication apps such as Whatsapp was two pictures of Hariri meeting the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, one where both are speaking in “asfureh” (a coded language used in order not to only be understood those taking part in the conversation where the speakers add several letters to the actual word uttered) and the other showing al-Rai handing a jar of provisions replying in spoken Arabic “these are from your Aunty Bahia” to Hariri saying “Thank you my patriarch for the stock.”
[Translation: Left: "I am kidnaped." Right: "We knew."]
[Translation: Left: "Thank you my patriarch.” Right: "Those are from your aunt Bahia."]
Television reports and social media reactions on the Hariri-themed Beirut Marathon which took place on 12 November 2017 compared it to the previous marathon in 2016, which took place only days after his appointment as prime minister, and in which Hariri himself participated. Reports featured participants this year asserting that they’re only participating in the marathon for the ‘prime minister’s sake’ (See for example Al Jadeed reports (see here and here) where one can find most of the ideas mentioned above).
Mainstream and social media’s narratives hence turned Hariri’s resignation into a national event. The mystery and information blackout around his resignation was felt as a national loss of anchor that not only affected the Sunni community, but the country at large. It is precisely this phenomenon which will provide a palliative to “real” political justifications.
[Translation: "I will return", with the three yellow letters spelling "Saad"]
A flagrant manifestation of the phenomenon we are trying to describe in this article came when official channels forgot to justify or give an explanation for Hariri’s trip to France. On 9 November French President Emmanuel Macron visited Saudi Arabia from where he wished that Hariri would be able to come back to Lebanon “as he has announced it”. But just as many episodes in this affair, it was unclear why Hariri needed to be in France until 22 November when he would return just in time for the celebration of independence.
The only link between the different layers of the Real—the real experienced and produced by the subtle interaction between media and audience, and the real lived by the various political actors—in the absence of a political declaration and explanation by Hariri, is what Yacoubian would have to say about what she saw in Riyadh. And as consequence, she was invited to numerous shows since both her and Hariri’s return. The day before Hariri returned to Lebanon, Yacoubian was invited to one of the most famous talk-shows on Lebanese TV, Hisham Haddad’s “La Hon w Bass” on LBCI. From the moment, she entered the stage and sat down, the audience experienced the familiarity between the two characters. At some point, Haddad was touching Yacoubian and hugging her, as she joked about his breath. The questions and (the fewer) replies were quick and shifty, subjects overlapping at a dizzying speed. The interaction of these two highly skilled TV interlocutors were felt as a half rehearsed half improvised virtuoso relying on the familiarity between them. Haddad joked about the relatively obscene amount of money Yacoubian gets for the type of interviews she conducts. The real does not need to hide itself anymore, that journalists are on different payrolls is not an issue here, because the result is the same: Yacoubian polishes Hariri’s image and that’s normalized for the audience.
At some point as Haddad pressed her to “tell the truth”, she bursts jokingly: “this is a light program, let me come out cute to people. What? You want me to tell you that he was imprisoned? I saw him, I walked with him, the guy was free to move, now there was a guy who had a rifle to his head [laughs], actually these cameras you saw, they are transformers” [laughs]. And Haddad answers “and you were Spiderman?”, to which Yacoubian replies “no Ironwoman”. In the remainder of her TV appearance, Yacoubian tried as hard as she can to convey that, even though “something was happening”, it wasn’t as “extreme” as it was portrayed on the media.
A few days earlier, Yacoubian had appeared on Al Jadeed TV, on Tony Khalife’s program al-‘Ayn bi-l-‘Ayn with the same kind of toning down of the situation, dismantling one after the other the multitudes of theories that had appeared on social media about Hariri’s alleged imprisonment, while acknowledging that “something very weird” had happened. Khalife also focused on the character of Yacoubian: “why did Hariri choose Paula?” he asked, to which Paula replied with a whole set of questions . . . A whole part of the interview was spent explaining the extent to which the media industry is groomed by Hariri, and not specifically employees of Future TV. These were topics were already normalized from older interviews with her (see here). Just as for Haddad on LBCI, the discussion veered to one big question: Why had Hariri appeared on Al Arabiyya rather than on his own TV channel in order to present his resignation? Most media commentators had tried to grab this clue as the one “real” and “explicit” link that Hariri was forced to resign or at least was told how to do it.
On Khalife’s show again, whenever the discussion could shift to a more political subject (apart from losing a lot of air time on dodging spectacular conspiracy theories), Yacoubian dodges them with her usual strategy of “humanizing” Hariri. When Khalife asked about Hariri’s brother Bahaa allegedly planning to take over, she answered: “Hariri (Saad) is pained by this subject so I prefer not to talk about it”. Then, in a rare show of explicit ideological outbursts Yacoubian exclaimed: “Rafic Hariri is embodied in Saad. Once Saad leaves, the Hariri legacy will end, I don’t know where we’ll go from there, maybe a new war of trenches, who knows . . . .” She concluded with the notion of political neutrality “na’eh bel nafs”—an expression repeated by Hariri in almost all statements he made since his interview with her—as the only safeguard of the country’s security.
Once the media saturated the space of meaning as fait divers, politics was crowded out. Hariri appeared on the Independence Day, met Aoun, went back on his resignation without any further clarifications, while the audience kept being entertained by a day long live transmission of national festivities. There were no clarifications on the circumstances of his return, or whether the “security threats” —mentioned as the main reason Hariri could not resign from Lebanon—had disappeared. Hariri began tweeting more positive and cheerful messages when just a few days ago there was a possibility of an all-out war. Still, at the time of writing this article, Hariri completely revoked his resignation, announced that he remains Prime Minister, but that “what happened in Saudi Arabia I will keep to myself.”