PM attends Independence Day military parade

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (right), President Michel Aoun (center) and House Speaker Nabih Berri attend a military parade to celebrate the 74th anniversary of Lebanon’s independence yesterday. – AFP

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Saad Al-Hariri yesterday shelved his decision to resign as prime minister at the request of President Michel Aoun, easing a crisis that had deepened tensions in the Middle East. Hariri made his announcement after returning to Beirut for the first time since he quit abruptly on Nov 4 in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia. Top Lebanese officials have said Riyadh forced him to quit and held him in the kingdom. Riyadh and Hariri deny this.

At the presidential palace near Beirut, Hariri said he hoped his move would lead to “a responsible dialogue…that deals with divisive issues and their repercussions on Lebanon’s relations with Arab brothers”. Hariri said all Lebanese sides must commit to keeping the country out of regional conflicts, a reference to the Iran-backed Hezbollah political and military movement. Hezbollah’s regional military role has greatly alarmed Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s long-time ally.

“I presented today my resignation to President Aoun and he urged me to wait before offering it and to hold onto it for more dialogue about its reasons and political background, and I showed responsiveness,” he said in a televised statement. The resignation had shocked even Hariri’s aides. He returned to Lebanon late on Tuesday night after French intervention. Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, had refused to accept the resignation because it happened in “mysterious circumstances” abroad. He had called Hariri a hostage in Riyadh. Hariri appeared to express relief that Aoun had not accepted the resignation right away. He thanked Aoun yesterday for respecting constitutional norms and “his rejection of departing from them under any circumstances”.

The resignation pitched Lebanon to the forefront of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and raised concerns of a protracted crisis. In his resignation speech, Hariri had cited fear of assassination, and attacked Iran along with Hezbollah for sowing strife in the Arab world.

Hariri’s resignation was followed by a steep escalation in Saudi statements against the Lebanese government, which includes Shiite Hezbollah. Riyadh said the government as a whole – not just Hezbollah – had declared war against it. Western governments including the United States struck a different tone, affirming their support for Hariri and the stability of Lebanon, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees – nearly one-in-four of the population. Ahead of his return to Beirut, Hariri had stressed the importance of the Lebanese state policy of staying out of regional conflicts, notably Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Iran-backed Houthi fighters.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who had also called for Hariri’s return, said on Monday his group was open to “any dialogue and any discussion”. Nasrallah also issued his clearest denial yet of any Hezbollah role in Yemen. A senior source in a political alliance that includes Hezbollah said Hariri’s move yesterday would start a breakthrough in the crisis. “This step is not detached from the framework of a complete solution whose features will appear in the coming days,” the source told Reuters.

Lebanese dollar bonds, which had fallen in response to Hariri’s resignation, gained following Wednesday’s announcement. A government minister from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close ally of Saudi Arabia, said Lebanon must implement its policy of keeping out of Middle East conflicts in order to get out of its own crisis as well as regional troubles. “The main problem facing that is the selective implementation of (this) principle and the functional Iranian role of Hezbollah outside the

Lebanese framework,” Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote on Twitter.
Cyprus, where Hariri had briefly stopped on his journey home, said it would attempt to help defuse the crisis. “Our common objective is stability in Lebanon, stability in our area. Within this context… the President of the Republic will undertake some initiatives precisely to promote this objective; stability in Lebanon,” Cypriot government spokesman Nikos Christodoulides said.

Hariri took office last year in a power-sharing deal that made Aoun head of state. He arrived in Beirut in time for independence day celebrations yesterday morning, taking the premier’s seat alongside Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Hariri said he looked forward to “real partnership with all the political powers, in placing Lebanon’s interests high above any other interests” and preserving coexistence among Lebanese.

Despite the potential struggles ahead, Hariri appeared relaxed as he attended a military parade, and then appeared at his Beirut home, where large crowds of supporters had gathered. As celebratory music played, the crowd chanted “Saad, Saad” and waved the blue flag of his Future Movement party. “I’m staying with you… to be a line of defense for Lebanon, Lebanon’s stability and Lebanon’s Arabism,” Hariri said, in an emphatic speech delivered at the door of his home in the center of the capital. “You are my real family,” he said, before soaking up his newfound popularity with a walkabout near his downtown residence.

“His presence in the country alone brings stability,” said Manar Akoum, 26, as she stood with the celebrating crowd. Outside his house, 32-year-old Hala waved the blue Future Movement flag enthusiastically. “He managed to bring Lebanon together,” she told AFP. “His return is very important, even if there are many things we don’t understand.”