CAIRO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (right) is greeted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi yesterday. – AFP

CAIRO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stopped in Egypt for talks yesterday on his way back from France to his country, which is reeling from his surprise resignation amid an escalating regional crisis. Minutes after Hariri landed in Cairo, small groups of supporters took to the streets of central Beirut in noisy convoys, honking, cheering and waving flags with the colors of the premier’s Future Movement.

Hariri’s visit to Cairo follows two weeks of deep uncertainty after he announced his resignation on Nov 4 in a speech from Saudi Arabia. He has said he will return to Lebanon by today. Hariri arrived at Cairo International Airport, where he was received by Egypt’s health minister, Lebanese ambassador to Cairo and Egypt’s ambassador to Beirut, his press office said. Hariri went immediately to the presidential palace to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. A message on Hariri’s Twitter account said the meeting would be followed by a dinner in his honor.

Sisi has sought to defuse the tensions between Hariri’s sponsors in Saudi Arabia and the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons. Sisi’s office said he received a phone call from Lebanese President Michel Aoun in which they discussed “the importance of preserving Lebanon’s stability and elevating Lebanon’s national interests”. Hariri’s failure to return to Lebanon since his resignation sparked rumors he was being held in Riyadh against his will, which both he and Saudi officials have denied.

A dual Saudi-Lebanese national with vast business interests in the kingdom, Hariri was due to fly to Lebanon after his talks with Sisi to attend today’s Independence Day celebrations. The celebrations are traditionally attended by the president, the prime minister and also parliament speaker – three pillars of Lebanon’s political system, with the president traditionally a Maronite Christian, the speaker a Shiite and the prime minister a Sunni.

In Lebanon, the army chief called on troops to stand firm against any attempt to incite strife in the country amid the crisis triggered by Hariri’s resignation. Gen Joseph Aoun’s comments came in a memorandum to the soldiers on the eve of Independence Day. The military, he said, “should firmly confront any attempt to take advantage of the current circumstances with the aim of inciting strife.” He also called on troops be on high alert along the border with Israel, to face any “threats or violations by the Israeli enemy”.

Media reports and analysts say Sisi and French President Emmanuel Macron have been trying to convince Hariri to negotiate with other Lebanese leaders a way out of the crisis, thus preventing the country’s delicate political balance from unraveling and plunging it into a prolonged crisis that would fuel tension in the region. News of the joint Egypt-French effort to persuade Hariri to stay in office was first reported by Al-Akhbar, an authoritative Beirut daily that takes an anti-Saudi stand. It said in its yesterday’s edition that French and Egyptian officials discussed Lebanon’s future in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on the sidelines of Sisi’s visit to the EU member Mediterranean island nation.

The Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat alluded to French and Egyptian efforts in a front-page report yesterday. “Hariri may be looking for comforting words and inspiration from Sisi,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, who pointed out Egypt’s historical role as the patron of Lebanon’s Sunnis before Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest shrines, succeeded it in that role.

After its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran emerged as patron of Lebanon’s Shiites, embracing Hezbollah and nurturing it until it became the single strongest political and military group in today’s Lebanon. “What the Egyptians and French need to do is to convince Mohammed bin Salman” to spare Lebanon a political crisis, he said, alluding to widespread suspicions that the Saudi crown prince, King Salman’s son, was behind Hariri’s resignation as part of the kingdom’s conflict with Shiite and non-Arab Iran.

Egypt under Sisi, a general-turned-president who took office in 2014, has forged close ties with the Saudis, who are his country’s main Arab financial backer. He has, however, managed to pursue regional policies different from those of Riyadh, particularly in Syria and Yemen, without inflicting serious damage on relations with Riyadh. Responding to Riyadh’s escalation against Iran and Hezbollah, Sisi earlier this month said the region already was so fraught with tension and instability that it did not need a new crisis. But he also renewed his pledge to come to the rescue of Gulf Arab allies and benefactors if their security was directly threatened. – Agencies