Lebanon's Hariri Takes His Political Fight to Twitter

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Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, center, recently started actively using Twitter to communicate with the Lebanese public

Young revolutionaries are no longer the only ones in the Arab world waging politics on Twitter: even senior Lebanese political leaders have begun delving into the social-media fray, sparking news, debate and more than a few smirks.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, with just over 5,000 followers, is already an old hand, having first tweeted back in January. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has been abroad since April (mainly in Paris and Riyadh), has had a Twitter account for most of this year, but it was only a few days ago that his 140-character communiqués began sounding as if they weren't written by an automaton.

"Well its about time to make this more up close and personel," Hariri tweeted on Nov. 3, "you be hearing from me more often and i'll be around as much as i can." True to his word, Hariri has devoted an hour or two of every evening since to engage his followers (14,000 and counting) in frank, lively Q&A sessions.

Immediate access to political figures is a novelty in a country where the divide between elites and everyone else is sharp, and politicians are not accustomed to being called to account. But social media is changing the game.

Mikati has largely used his mainly English-language tweets to serve as Cheerleader in Chief for national unity, when he's not documenting time spent with his grandchildren and revisiting places he and his wife May saw on their honeymoon. But he has used the medium to get beyond his buttoned-up persona and identify with everyman concerns. "Traffic jams are suffocating!" he recently tweeted. "The roads of my country ought to become safer & more fluid...Working on it!" Amusingly, the Premier tends to sign his messages "N.M.," lest anyone doubt their authenticity.

He has also used the medium for "digital diplomacy," engaging in a Twitter Q&A session that involved the British ambassador to Lebanon, ahead of a recent meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But it has been Hariri's nightly Twitter fests that have the Lebanese media aflutter. Tweeting in English (much to the chagrin of some of his followers), he has used the platform for everything, from blasting the "massacres" unleashed by the Syrian regime against its own people to revealing his love of soccer, diving and Harley-Davidsons. And, of course, he has also addressed the issue of the U.N.-sponsored tribunal into the murder of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri — which has pinned the murder on members of Hizballah, sparking an ongoing crisis within Lebanese politics pitting the Syrian-backed Shi'ite Hizballah movement and its allies in the current ruling coalition against the fiercely anti-Syrian opposition led by Hariri. Mikati is stuck somewhere in the middle.

Asked on Twitter about what Mikati may do if his hand is forced by Hizballah and its allies who are demanding that Lebanon break from the tribunal, Hariri expressed doubt that the Premier would keep his promise to resign and predicted Mikati would indeed cut Lebanese funding to the tribunal. "There will [be] consequences on people and i hope not on lebanon," Hariri wrote.

Some followers initially expressed doubts that the person operating the Twitter account in his name really was the young billionaire politician, prompting Hariri to tweet: "It's me, Saad, you are talking to. Believe it." (Hariri's office said that @HaririSaad was the former Prime Minister's official Twitter account.)

He politely fields numerous requests for personal audiences ("call my office") and tries to make himself accessible: "R u going to only answer political question or could ask u about anything? Nothing personal of course," wrote one follower. "Ask anything you want," Hariri responded. The question was about PlayStation and if the former Premier plays it. (He doesn't, but his son does.)

Still, the Hariri tweet that had everyone in Beirut talking was about the Shi'ite Speaker of the House, Nabih Berri, an ally of Syria and Hizballah who was voted into another term at the helm of parliament by his allies, with the support of Hariri's bloc.

"No voting for berri anymore if we win the election that is a promise," Hariri said in response to a question. Not convinced, the questioner tweeted back: "With all my respect, plz dont make promises u cant keep," prompting Hariri to write this: "i will keep it believe me and i promise."

Not one to take a slight easily, the loquacious Speaker got his own in the traditional media: "Hariri has revealed in his electronic messages a number of his personal hobbies these days, one of which is diving. The Lebanese have also discovered a new hobby of the 'sheik' and that is of politics. Better he dive in the former than the latter," Berri said in a statement.

Oh, snap! Hariri waited until the following evening's Twitter session to get in another crack. When asked by a follower what he would teach if he could teach anything, Hariri said, "scuba diving, in spite of Mr Berri." Looks like a Twitter fight might be brewing. Stay tuned!