BEIRUT – Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon late Tuesday for the first time since he stunned his country by announcing from Saudi Arabia that he was quitting as prime minister more than two weeks ago.
His resignation, made in an uncomfortable televised statement from Riyadh, set off an international political crisis involving Paris and Washington, who were left without one of their chief partners in a region swirling in conflict.
Hariri left Saudi Arabia for Paris on Saturday by invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron, before traveling on to Beirut by way of Egypt and Cyprus on Tuesday.
President Michel Aoun said he would not accept the resignation until Hariri delivered it in person.
Hariri, looking solemn upon his arrival, was driven from the airport to pray at the grave of his father, the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. He then retired to his home in central Beirut.
He was expected to join Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the army’s independence day parade Wednesday.
Hariri was leading a coalition government with his political opponents in the militant group Hezbollah when he stunned Lebanon by announcing his resignation on Nov. 4. He accused Hezbollah of holding Lebanon hostage and hinted there was a plot against his life.
The announcement pushed Lebanon back to the forefront of a pounding regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which until recently appeared to have a tacit agreement to find an accord to keep Lebanon stable.
It also set off speculation that Hariri had been forced to step down by the Gulf kingdom and was being held there against his will. His announcement was accompanied by a sharp intensification of Saudi rhetoric against Hezbollah, which the kingdom accuses of meddling on Iran’s behalf in regional affairs.
Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s brutal civil war, where many of Assad’s enemies are rebels backed by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom says Hezbollah is also advising Houthi rebels waging a war against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government.
Hezbollah says Saudi Arabia has partnered with Israel to conspire against regional independence.
Hariri, in his only in depth interview since announcing his resignation, told his media station Future TV that he could retract his resignation if a deal could be struck with his opponents to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts.
Hariri’s trek back from Saudi Arabia came by way of Paris, Egypt, and Cyprus, where he met with the presidents of those countries.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi and French leader Emmanuel Macron are reportedly trying to mediate a solution that would involve rolling back Hariri’s resignation.
A dual Saudi-Lebanese national with vast business interests in the kingdom, Hariri told reporters after talks with the Egyptian leader: “Inshallah (God willing), tomorrow’s Independence Day in Lebanon will be a feast for all Lebanese.”
The celebrations are traditionally attended by the president, the prime minister and the parliament speaker – three pillars of Lebanon’s political system, with the president traditionally a Maronite Christian, the speaker a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim.
Hariri met with el-Sissi at the presidential palace in Cairo’s upscale Heliopolis district and a cryptic statement by the Lebanese leader’s press office later said the two discussed the “latest developments in Lebanon and the region.”
Separately, el-Sissi spoke on the telephone with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, according to an official Egyptian statement. The two leaders emphasized that preserving Lebanon’s national unity and the country’s national interests was a top priority, the statement said.
Hariri arrived in France on Saturday at the invitation of Macron, who has been trying to calm tensions and avert another proxy conflict in the region, between Saudi-backed and Iranian-backed camps in Lebanon. After meeting with Macron, Hariri said he would return home in time for Wednesday’s celebrations in Lebanon, where he said he would “declare my political stance.”
“As you know I have resigned and we will talk about this matter in Lebanon,” Hariri said.
Lebanon’s president, Aoun, has refused to accept Hariri’s resignation, accusing the Saudis of holding him against his will. Hariri denied this.
Media reports and analysts say el-Sissi and Macron have been trying to persuade Hariri to negotiate with other Lebanese leaders on a way out of the crisis, thus preventing the country’s delicate political balance from unraveling and plunging it into a prolonged crisis that would fuel tension in the region.
News of the joint Egypt-French effort was reported by Al-Akhbar, an authoritative Beirut newspaper that takes an anti-Saudi stand. It said in its Tuesday edition that French and Egyptian officials discussed Lebanon’s future in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, on the sidelines of el-Sissi’s visit to the island nation. El-Sissi returned home from Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon.
El-Sissi, a general who has been Egypt’s president since 2014, has forged close ties with the Saudis, who are his country’s main Arab financial backer. He has, however, managed to pursue regional policies different from those of Riyadh, particularly in Syria and Yemen, without damaging relations with the Saudis.
Responding to Riyadh’s escalation against Iran and Hezbollah, el-Sissi earlier this month said the region already was so fraught with tension and instability that it did not need a new crisis. But he also renewed his pledge to come to the rescue of Gulf Arab allies and benefactors if their security was directly threatened.
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