Lebanese Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri said on Monday he was stepping back from politics partly blaming Iran’s intrusive role in Lebanon.
The move turns the country's sectarian politics on its head as the country grapples with a financial crisis and may delay the upcoming parliamentary election.
Hariri, three times prime minister, also called on his party not to run any candidates in May's vote, indicating several factors were behind his decision, including Iranian influence -- a reference to the heavily armed Shi'ite group Hezbollah.
Hariri's Future Movement has long been the biggest representative of the Sunni community, controlling one of the largest blocs in parliament that also included members of other sects - seats which others can now win.
In a televised address, Hariri said he had decided to "suspend any role in power, politics and parliament", his voice breaking with emotion as he spoke in front of a portrait of his father.
"I am convinced that there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, international disarray, national division, sectarianism, and the collapse of the state," he said.
The move injects huge uncertainty into Lebanese politics just months ahead of the election, in which Hezbollah's adversaries had hoped to overturn a majority it won with its allies in 2018. It is to be seen whether Hariri’s dramatic decision can galvanize more support against Hezbollah.
The move is bound to focus more attention on Iran’s interventions in regional countries, strongly opposed by Israel and Sunni Arab states in the region. Tehran supports the Hezbollah by providing arms and money both to expand its influence and threaten Israel. As the United States negotiates to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and lift sanctions, countries concerned over Iran’s policies have urged a comprehensive deal to change Tehran’s conduct.
Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated with a huge bomb that exploded as his motorcade drove by in 2005, killing him and many others. Suspicions strongly fell on Hezbollah and Syria for eliminating a strong political figure close to Saudi Arabia.
Some analysts have said a boycott by Lebanon's largest Sunni movement, which would leave the Sunni political scene in disarray, may lead to calls for a delay.
While Hariri has remained Lebanon's leading Sunni since inheriting his father's political mantle, his political fortunes have waned in recent years, with his position weakened by the loss of Saudi support. Future lost a third of its seats in 2018, some of them to Hezbollah-allied Sunnis.
Hariri's announcement comes as Lebanon suffers an economic meltdown which the World Bank has described as one of the sharpest ever globally. The sectarian elite has failed to take steps to address the crisis even as the bulk of the population has fallen into poverty.
Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon's leading Druze politician, told Reuters the announcement was "very sad because we are losing a major pillar of independence and of moderation". "It means a free hand for Hezbollah and the Iranians," he added.
With reporting by Reuters