A day after returning to Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, has said he is suspending his resignation—temporarily halting what would have effectively brought down his 11-month-old government. Speaking during Lebanon’s Independence Day celebrations on Wednesday, Hariri said what Lebanon “needs at this sensitive time [is] exceptional efforts from everyone to protect it against danger,” before adding that his country “must dissociate from wars, external struggles and regional conflicts.”
Earlier in the day, Hariri met with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun to hand in his resignation in person—Auon had made it clear that he would only accept a resignation if done in person. But today, Auon responded to the resignation by requesting for more time for consultations, in what Hariri hopes will constitute a “serious introduction for [national] dialogue.”
More than two weeks ago, Hariri announced his surprise resignation in a televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia, where he was said to have been kept ‘hostage’. At the time, his shock announcement had prompted fears that he had been forced to leave office under the orders of the Saudi kingdom. Saudi-backed Hariri, who owns property in the kingdom and is a dual national of Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, is believed to have been under growing pressure to condemn Hezbollah, his partners in government. He refused to do so. Judging by what happened earlier in the month, that decision proved costly. Eventually, he did return, after much negotiation by both Egypt and France (who hosted him in the past few days). Now, Hariri, who arrived back in Beirut on Tuesday, has reiterated the need for Lebanon to remain neutral on regional disputes and conflicts “and all that undermines internal stability and brotherly relations with Arab brothers.”
After Wednesday’s announcement, Hariri supporters marched through central Beirut, chanting “Saad” and waving the blue flag of his Future Movement political party. A convoy of honking cars, some painted blue and others plastered with pictures of Hariri, zipped through the streets. Dozens also gathered at his house, near the government headquarters in Beirut, to welcome him back. Such scenes of euphoria are consistent with the way in which a broad segment of Lebanese society has unanimously called for their prime minister’s return, after what they feel was Saudi orchestrated resignation.
This latest move by Hariri and the positivity it has been met with, offers a brief respite for a country that is currently struggling with the spillover from the war in Syria and a large refugee population (currently 1.5 million) it has since taken in. Its sectarian divisions, which are often exploited (to the country’s detriment) add another layer to Lebanon’s present reality. And to many, the “temporary suspension” of the prime minister’s resignation will avoid a chaotic scenario in which the President Aoun is forced to select a new prime minister. The new prime minister, would then be expected to select a new cabinet. Such a process can take months, according to experts. Owing to the country’s recent political experience—it went without a president for 2-1/2 years—the brief respite provided by Hariri’s non-resignation is what the country sorely needs.
Nevertheless, maintaining a spirit of tranquility remains a challenge, given the regional context of this and other crises in the region. As previously mentioned, Saudi Arabia is believed to have forced Hariri’s resignation as part of wider plan by the kingdom to counter its rival Iran. That move seems to have backfired, for now. But the worry remains that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman—the key architect of its foreign policy—may prove unfazed by this perceived setback. Predicting his next move, may present a challenge in itself, but recent Saudi involvement in other parts of the Middle East suggest a new-found assertiveness (and stubbornness) which could see the Saudis pursue their aims more aggressively in Lebanon. A contributing factor to all this, is the recent cozying up between Israel and Saudi Arabia—both of whom share a fierce antipathy towards Hezbollah and its backer, Iran. And in light of the steep escalation in Saudi statements against the Lebanese government (which includes Hezbollah) following the Hariri’s initial resignation announcement, it is difficult to see them backing away anytime soon. It is also worth pointing out that Riyadh said the Lebanese government as a whole—not just Hezbollah—had declared war against it. That alone could be interpreted as Saudi Arabia looking for a pretext for potential military action against Iran and its proxy Hezbollah. It shouldn’t be forgotten how quickly it blamed Iran for supplying Yemen’s Houthi rebels with a missile used in an attempted attack on Riyadh. Owing to this propensity for bellicose rhetoric, it is hard to see the Saudi straying away from its current path.
Amid all the tension from the past month, most Western governments seem to have struck a different tone to Saudi Arabia, affirming their support for Hariri and Lebanon and the stability of the country. And these different tones reflect competing visions of Lebanon’s present and future: where Saudi Arabia sees a potential battleground in its bid to check Iran’s influence, other nations see a country which should at all costs avoid the same fate as some of its neighbouring countries. Specifically, that would involve setting in motion an extended period of tranquility in Lebanon, politically, socially, and economically. Could the Wednesday’s announcement serve as a stepping-stone towards achieving that? That depends on which of the competing visions of Lebanon’s ultimately wins out.
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