Nov 22nd 2017
FOR a man who less than three weeks ago said his enemies were out to kill him, Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri (pictured right), looked remarkably relaxed. During his first public appearance on home soil since his shock resignation on November 4th, Mr Hariri even shared a smile and a joke with the president, Michel Aoun (pictured left), as soldiers paraded before the two men during independence day celebrations in Beirut on November 22nd.
For now, the pair have every reason to smile. Hours after the parade, Mr Hariri said he had decided “temporarily” to suspend his resignation, averting a political crisis that looked as if it might bring down the government and raise communal tension. Standing outside his Beirut residence in front of thousands of cheering supporters later in the day, Mr Hariri vowed to stay in Lebanon to defend the country’s stability.
Mr Hariri’s triumphant homecoming marks the end of a mysterious odyssey. It began on November 3rd when he flew to Riyadh. That was not unusual: Mr Hariri is a Sunni Arab with dual Saudi citizenship and is backed by the Saudi regime. But the following day he announced he would step down, in a speech packed with unusually zealous language. He accused Iran, the Saudis’ arch-rival, of sowing “devastation and destruction” in the region. His resignation was widely interpreted as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to curb the influence of Iran in Lebanon by isolating its Shia client, Hizbullah, which is part of Mr Hariri’s government.
Mr Hariri then disappeared from public view, leading to accusations from Lebanese officials that Saudi Arabia had detained their prime minister. He re-emerged more than a week later to give an odd interview in which he said he might rescind his resignation if Saudi demands were met. In a message aimed at Hizbullah and its Christian allies in government, Mr Hariri said Lebanon should stay out of the region’s conflicts, especially the war in Yemen, where Saudi forces are fighting rebels backed by Iran. He hinted that the Saudis and their Gulf allies might impose sanctions if Lebanon ignored the demands.
The interview did little to dispel the belief that the Saudis were holding Mr Hariri against his will. As the clamour for his return grew, France invited him and his family to Paris. Lebanese who had expected their prime minister to return “within days” watched as he flew first to France, then Egypt, then Cyprus, before finally touching down in Beirut.
As diplomats scrambled to avert a crisis that threatened to up-end Lebanon’s fragile political order, the Saudis tried to muster Arab support. At an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on November 19th, Arab foreign ministers accused Iran of destabilising the region and criticised Hizbullah for supporting terrorist groups in the region. Mr Aoun, an ally of Hizbullah, bristled at the suggestion that Lebanon’s government, which is dominated by the group and its allies, is “a partner in terrorist attacks”.
Mr Hariri’s decision to shelve his resignation paves the way for negotiations. Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, says he is open to “any dialogue and any discussion”. He has promised to withdraw his fighters from Iraq once the jihadists of Islamic State have been defeated. But the Saudis are far more concerned with Hizbullah’s activities in Yemen. If a deal emerges that fails to satisfy Mr Hariri’s Saudi patrons, then the smiles may not last.