TRIPOLI // After speculation that he would stage his political comeback at a rally in Tripoli yesterday, Saad Hariri was a no-show.
Following months of self-imposed exile, the former prime minister remained outside the country, much to the disappointment of some of the thousands who came out in support of March 14, Lebanon's opposition alliance, which includes Mr Hariri's Mustaqbal movement.
March 14 leaders who addressed the crowds at Tripoli's Rashid Karami complex demanded Hizbollah give up their weapons and pledged support for the Syrian uprising and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Saad Hariri's father.
As pressure mounts on the government to pay its share of the STL's budget, yesterday's gathering was seen as an opportunity for the deflated opposition, which includes the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb groups as well as the Mustaqbal movement, to regroup.
Fouad Siniora, the leader of the Mustaqbal bloc, and others used the rally to challenge the prime minister, Nejib Mikati, ahead of a crucial cabinet meeting this week on funding for the United Nations-backed court. Mr Siniora, a former prime minister, said it was a "right and a duty" to cooperate with the STL.
"Our support for the tribunal is not about revenge, but because of justice," he said. "The people want to know the truth."
Throughout the day, the refrains of pro-March 14 anthems could be heard blaring through parts of Tripoli. Young men danced in the streets, waving the signature light blue flag of the Mustaqbal movement.
Inside the complex it was a sea of blue, as well as the red, white and green of the Lebanese flag. Many in the crowd held pictures of both Saad Hariri and his late father.
Faten Ghanem, 29, a social worker from Tripoli, said despite Saad Hariri's absence, she still supported him.
"Whenever he decides to come back and be on the ground, we're with him," she said. "But we're here especially today because he told us to on Twitter."
Mr Hariri has re-emerged in recent weeks, taking to the social media site to reconnect with his supporters. Suddenly, his statements, issued via Twitter, were back in the headlines.
Last night, Mr Hariri addressed his followers saying that he was "very sad" to not be among those at the Tripoli rally.
"I decided not to address you through a screen even though some expected it," he wrote on Twitter. "I want my speeches to you to remain direct and in person. This is what will happen soon in Lebanon and from Tripoli, I promise."
Sources close to Mr Hariri had said he left Lebanon in June for "security reasons". The former prime minster has spent time in Saudi Arabia, where he was born and where his family had strong ties, as well as in France.
"It is necessary for him to come back to Lebanon," said a 36-year-old lawyer from Tripoli who would only identify himself as Issam. "But we are also afraid that someone might kill him, like they killed his father."
In June, four Hizbollah supporters were indicted for playing a role in the February 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri. The Shiite movement has denied any involvement and described the tribunal as an American and Israeli conspiracy, pledging to not cooperate with the court.
But, with Lebanon owing more than US$32 million (Dh117.4m) towards the STL's budget, pressure is mounting on the government.
Lebanon has come under increasing international pressure to meet its commitments to the tribunal, particularly after it failed to pay its dues by the end of October, raising the possibility of sanctions and being reported to the UN Security Council.
Last week, Mr Mikati - who became prime minister in January, following the collapse of Mr Hariri's cabinet - indicated he would step down if his government blocked funding for the Netherlands-based court.
His comments have prompted fears that the government could collapse if a compromise cannot be reached.