x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Lebanon president 'waiting for Hariri to return to Beirut' before taking further action

Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on Saturday in Riyadh, a move that appeared to surprise even his own staff

The office of Lebanese president Michel Aoun, pictured here on October 11, 2015, has said he is waiting for Saad Hariri to return to Beirut before taking further action. But it is now clear when - or if - the former Lebanese prime minister will return. Nabil Mounzer / EPA
The office of Lebanese president Michel Aoun, pictured here on October 11, 2015, has said he is waiting for Saad Hariri to return to Beirut before taking further action. But it is now clear when - or if - the former Lebanese prime minister will return. Nabil Mounzer / EPA

The office of Lebanese president Michel Aoun on Sunday said he was waiting for former prime minister Saad Hariri to return to Beirut to discuss his resignation before taking any further action.

It came a day after Mr Hariri announced his resignation on Saturday in Riyadh, a move that appeared to surprise even his own staff. Mr Hariri had travelled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after meeting with a top adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Al Khamenei in Beirut earlier in the day. It was Mr Hariri's second visit to the kingdom in less than a week.

Members of Mr Hariri's Future Movement party had planned demonstrations for Saturday afternoon to show their support for the former prime minister, but these were later cancelled. No reason was given for the cancellation.

A spokeswoman for Mr Hariri told The National on Sunday that there was no indication as to when — or, indeed, if ever — Mr Hariri would return to Lebanon. In his resignation speech, the former prime minister had said he feared for his life.

There were conflicting reports in Lebanese and Saudi media on Sunday regarding the existence of an assassination plot against Mr Hariri. Thamer Al Sabhan, the Saudi minister of state and Arab Gulf affairs, claimed that a plot had been “foiled”, while Lebanese Internal Security denied the existence of one.

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Mr Hariri’s father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated by a massive bomb in downtown Beirut in 2005. An ongoing special tribunal backed by the United Nations has indicted four members of Hizbollah for their alleged roles in the killing.

Hizbollah, the only political party in Lebanon that continues to also maintain an armed wing, has long been at odds with the Hariris over the role of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran in Lebanese politics, among other issues. The Shiite movement receives backing from Iran and Syria while Mr Hariri and his family have close ties to Riyadh, which is also a patron of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was expected to address Mr Hariri’s resignation in a televised speech on Sunday evening. Meanwhile, Bahrain said on Sunday it was ordering all of its citizens in Lebanon to "leave immediately", with Bahrainis banned from travelling to the country. It comes after GCC countries, including the UAE, banned travel to Lebanon last year after the Lebanese foreign minister refused to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

Mr Hariri lived in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia and France from 2011 to 2014, after his first term as prime minister ended with Hizbollah members withdrawing from the government, triggering its collapse. Part of the dispute between Mr Hariri’s political bloc and Hizbollah’s centred around the legitimacy of the special tribunal.

Iranian officials have also ratcheted up their rhetoric in recent months, with president Hassan Rouhani boasting in October that “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's remarks angered many Lebanese, with Mr Hariri saying at the time that they were “unacceptable.”

Mr Hariri also excoriated Iran’s role in Lebanon and the wider region in his resignation speech on Saturday, exposing the rifts between his political bloc and Hizbollah’s that had for a while remained in the background. For the past year, the two groups had maintained a kind of consensus government, with Mr Hariri even being forced to speak positively of Hizbollah due to its militia's role in helping the Lebanese army to drive extremist groups from northern Lebanon.

Mr Aoun is also an ally of Hizbollah, and Mr Hariri was well aware that without the support of both his government would end. That situation forced him to tread a particularly fine line.

During Mr Hariri's latest stint as prime minister, the Lebanese government addressed long-standing issues within the country, including passing a national budget, raising public sector wages, and approving an electoral law. Lebanon has not held parliamentary elections since 2009, but polls have been planned for May of next year.

Mr Aoun recently promised that legislative elections would take place as planned. Scheduled elections polls have been postponed three times since 2013.

One possibility going forward is that a caretaker government will take control until elections are held. Another is for Mr Aoun to attempt the formation of a new government, a task that would be difficult if Mr Hariri’s Future Movement is unwilling to participate in the process or cannot put forth any candidates acceptable to other political factions.

Lebanon’s political quota system stipulates that the prime minister must be a Sunni, the speaker of parliament must be Shiite, and the president must be a Maronite Christian.

* Additional reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press