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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Lebanon president 'happy to hear' Hariri will return to Lebanon soon 

It came after former prime minister Saad Hariri said in a television interview on Sunday night that he would return to Lebanon within days and may withdraw his resignation if political factions can agree to stop interfering in regional affairs

Lebanese president Michel Aoun, seen here at the presidential palace in Baabda on November 7, 2017, says Saad Hariri's government will remain in place. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
Lebanese president Michel Aoun, seen here at the presidential palace in Baabda on November 7, 2017, says Saad Hariri's government will remain in place. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

Lebanese president Michel Aoun said on Monday he was happy to hear that former prime minister Saad Hariri will return to Beirut from Saudi Arabia soon following his resignation more than a week ago.

"I was happy with prime minister Hariri's announcement that he would return to Lebanon soon," Mr Aoun said on Twitter.

"I am awaiting this return to discuss with the prime minister the issue of the resignation, the reasons for it and the circumstances, issues, and concerns that need to be resolved," he added in an emailed statement.

His comments came after Mr Hariri said in a television interview on Sunday night that he would return to Lebanon within days and may withdraw his resignation if the country's political factions can agree to stop interfering in regional affairs — a reference to Hizbollah's role in the Syrian war and its alleged role in the war in Yemen.

Mr Hariri's remarks were his first in public since announcing his resignation from his residence in Riyadh on November 4. He has remained in the kingdom ever since apart from leaving for a brief visit to the UAE.

During the interview with Lebanese journalist Paula Yacoubian in Riyadh, Mr Hariri insisted the Saudi government has not placed him under house arrest, as some of his political supporters have suggested. He also defended his resignation.

“We cannot say that we apply disassociation and at the same time see a group interfering in Yemen, or be dragged to relations with the Syrian regime, which I will not do. I warned many times but I did not get any response,” Mr Hariri said.

“There was a danger in Lebanon, and I wanted to take additional steps and send a positive shock.”

Shortly before Mr Hariri's interview aired on Sunday night, Mr Aoun reiterated his belief that the former prime minister was under duress and that anything he said should be “subject to doubt”. But on Monday, Mr Aoun appeared to moderate his stance, telling visitors to his office that Mr Hariri’s remarks proved the consensus government he had presided over during the last year could remain in place, according to Reuters.

Also on Monday, the head of Lebanon's Maronite sect, the country's largest Christian community, said the return of Mr Hariri from Saudi Arabia would restore normal life to the country.

Speaking to reporters before departing for Saudi Arabia himself, Cardinal Bechara El Rai said the Lebanese people had been "unsettled" since Mr Hariri's resignation. He said he would raise the matter with the Saudi king and crown prince during his visit to the kingdom which had been planned before Mr Hariri's shock announcement. The cardinal is also expected to meet with Mr Hariri while in Saudi Arabia.

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Mr Hariri’s appointment as prime minister late last year brought to an end a two-year period of no government in Lebanon. But it required the support of both Hizbollah and Mr Aoun, who is allied with the Shiite political party and militia. Although Mr Hariri and Hizbollah had long been political rivals and at times bitter enemies, Mr Hariri managed to walk a fine line between appeasing both the group and the demands of Saudi Arabia, his own foreign patron.

“I am proud of the consensus we reached, and I am not turning my back on it and want it to succeed,” Mr Hariri said on Sunday. “Political parties are allowed, but are they allowed to play a foreign role and make us Lebanese carry its weight?”

While Mr Hariri’s speech may have been encouraging in so far as offering a way out of Lebanon’s current political crisis, many observers remarked that he still appeared to be more a mouthpiece for Saudi policy rather than someone speaking on his own behalf.

"He looked like a broken man who did not believe what he was saying, who is following orders and relaying a specific message,” said Randa Slim, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival, has supported Hizbollah both financially and militarily since its creation in the early 1980s and throughout its evolution to become Lebanon’s dominant political presence today.

On Monday, the French and German foreign ministers called for "non-interference" in Lebanon.

"For there to be a political solution in Lebanon, it is necessary that all of the political leaders have total freedom of movement and that non-interference is a fundamental principle," France's Jean-Yves le Drian said as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, meanwhile, said there was a danger of Lebanon falling back into "political and sometimes military confrontations".

"In order to prevent this we need especially the return of the current prime minister, reconciliation in the country and the prevention of influence from outside," he said.

Their remarks came as Mr Hariri received the EU, German and British ambassadors to Saudi Arabia at his residence in Riyadh.

Also speaking on Monday, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said Mr Hariri's remarks a day before gave the "small hope of the possibility of his return to Lebanon", adding, "Iran does not interfere in Lebanon's affairs".

Last month, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani boasted of Iran’s growing influence in the region, a comment that angered Mr Hariri as well as Saudi Arabia.

“The greatness of the nation of Iran in the region is more than at any other time. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, northern Africa, in the Persian Gulf region — where can action be taken without Iran?" Mr Rouhani said.

In the last five years, Hizbollah has become a critical player in the Syrian war, sending thousands of fighters to shore up the government there. Analysts said a more likely place for compromise would be Yemen, which Mr Hariri brought up more than once during his interview.

“I guess what the Saudis really want are assurances that Hizbollah isn’t active in Yemen,” said Amal Saad, a political science professor at Lebanese University.

“Since Hizbollah has never admitted of such a role, that shouldn’t be too hard.”

Ms Saad said she was optimistic that the crisis could be resolved.

“Hariri's willingness to reach a compromise with Hizbollah and retract his resignation, in addition to the conciliatory tone of his interview vis-à-vis Hizbollah, indicates it's now likely a solution can be reached similar to the status quo-ante."

* Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press