x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ousted PM Hariri returns to Lebanon

Three days after the collapse of his government, the deposed Lebanese prime minister arrived home to rebuild his coalition and preserve support for the UN tribunal investigating the assassination of his father.

BEIRUT //Three days after the collapse of his government, Saad Hariri, the deposed Lebanese prime minister, arrived home to rebuild his coalition and preserve support for the UN tribunal investigating the assassination of his father.

He met immediately with the president, Michel Suleiman, on his arrival in Beirut to discuss the political crisis after a week-long trip during which Hizbollah forced the collapse of his government.

"My allies and I will participate in consultations [to name a new premier] and will fully co-operate with the president to form a new government in line with the requirements to maintain national unity," Mr Hariri said in a brief statement after meeting with Mr Suleiman.

"I never sought power," he said. "Between power and the dignity of my family and nation, I choose the dignity of Lebanon and the Lebanese."

Earlier yesterday, Mr Hariri met with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in Ankara to discuss steps to solve the government crisis.

He has been asked to remain as caretaker prime minister by Mr Suleiman, who is due to begin consultations on Monday with Lebanon's 128 MPs to nominate a new prime minister.

Mr Hariri was in Washington on Wednesday, about to meet the US president, Barack Obama, at the White House, when he heard 10 members of the Hizbollah-led opposition bloc, along with an 11th cabinet member loyal to the Shiite group, resigned from the government to protest against his support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the 2005 assassination of the former premier and his father, Rafiq Hariri.

Despite this trouble on the home front, Mr Hariri continued on to France on Wednesday evening to meet with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and yesterday to Turkey. While his delayed return to Lebanon has been seen as an attempt to shore up his foreign allies, others have found his absence at a time of political crisis neglectful.

"I don't want him back. If he's here or not here, it's the same," said Abed Halaal, 22, a banker in Beirut. "He should be back. In any normal country, he'd be back but if the government is not his concern, then who is going to be concerned with it?"

Analysts in Beirut expressed surprise at Mr Hariri's late return and there were several theories being floated as to the political strategy behind his travels.

"One can understand why he was travelling so much," said Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst for the NGO International Crisis Group. "The tribunal issue is not Lebanese. There are a lot of players involved, so their positions need to be taken into account.

"One of the [explanations] is that he is trying to have the support of his different allies and see what can be done next," said Mr Atrache. "Turkey has relations with Syria and with Hizbollah, so going to Turkey is very symbolic in a way."

The government's collapse came after the failure on Tuesday of a months-long effort by Saudi Arabia and Syria - patron states to each side of Lebanon's political divide - to solve the Lebanese stalemate. Now there is a vacuum in foreign-brokered solutions and other states are rushing in to restore stability, and their own influence, in Lebanon.

"The stability of Lebanon is important for the stability of the region," said Mr Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, in comments published by the Anatolia news agency yesterday. "We regard all Lebanese as Turkey's friends, regardless of their political view, sect or religion."

Government sources said France was also trying to lead an initiative in the way Saudi Arabia had been trying to come up with a new solution and play a major role in a future compromise.

France, Lebanon's former colonial power, has proposed the creation of an international "contact group" similar to that of Bosnia in the 1990s to negotiate a settlement, a European diplomat in Beirut told AFP.

"The contact group would include Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States, Qatar, Turkey and possibly other countries," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "The group would meet outside of Lebanon given the current tensions in the country."

Mr Hariri returned to Lebanon with an opposition adamant that he will not be renominated as prime minister of the new government. Hizbollah has said it would nominate a premier with "a history of resistance" but stopped short of giving any names.

Hizbollah would need the backing of Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druze sect, who broke with his former allies in Mr Hariri's camp in 2009. Mr Jumblatt is known for shifting loyalties. He met with Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, on Thursday night, but did not comment on the talks.

Yesterday, the ex-premier Fouad Siniora said Mr Hariri will be re-nominated for the post by his Future Movement, which will not consider any alternative candidates.

Since rumours surfaced months ago that the tribunal would indict Hizbollah members, the strength of Lebanon's government slowly eroded. Until Wednesday's collapse, the cabinet had been paralysed, managing just a single three-hour meeting in the past two months.

Hizbollah and its opposition allies are eager to discredit the tribunal, dubbing it a US-Israeli ploy to damage the group. For months they have pressured Mr Hariri and his majority coalition to reject the tribunal outright and stop Lebanese state funding to it. Mr Hariri and his allies refused to compromise and this ultimately led to the government's collapse.

Meanwhile, this weekend, Lebanon is expected to witness a "political mobilisation", according to Lebanese daily An Nahar, to announce the final stances of both sides of the dispute and to work towards the naming of Lebanon's new prime minister.


With additional reporting by Bloomberg and Associated Press