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One month on, Hariri rescinds shock resignation

BAABDA: Lebanese President Michel Aoun (right) speaks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Presidential Palace yesterday. – AP

BAABDA, Lebanon: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said yesterday that he had withdrawn his resignation, a month after his shock announcement that he was quitting sparked political upheaval. The announcement brought some respite to Lebanon, which had been gripped by fears of new political and economic instability in a country riven by deep divisions and caught up in regional rivalries. Minutes after Hariri’s announcement, Paris said the Lebanese premier would attend talks Friday in France on the situation in Lebanon, which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will also attend.

“The council of ministers thanks the prime minister for rescinding his resignation,” Hariri said, reading from a cabinet statement issued after its first meeting since his return two weeks ago. Hariri announced he was stepping down on November 4 in a televised address from Saudi Arabia, a move widely seen as part of the boiling tensions between the Saudi kingdom – a longtime Hariri backer – and its regional rival Iran.

In his resignation, Hariri lambasted Tehran and its Lebanese ally, the powerful armed movement Hezbollah, for destabilizing his country and the Middle East. He later said he would consider coming back as premier if Hezbollah stopped intervening in regional conflicts, including the wars in Syria and Yemen. In recent days, consultations across the political spectrum have sought to find a compromise between the Saudi-backed camp led by Hariri, and Hezbollah’s Iran-backed bloc. Yesterday, Lebanon’s cabinet, which includes both blocs, reaffirmed its official policy of “disassociation”, or remaining neutral in regional conflicts.

“The Lebanese government, in all its political components, has committed to distance itself from all conflicts, wars, and internal affairs of Arab states,” according to the cabinet statement read out by Hariri. This “disassociation” is intended to “preserve Lebanon’s political and economic relations with its Arab brothers”, the statement added. The policy had already been adopted by Hariri’s cabinet, formed in 2016 after a settlement across political divides that saw Michel Aoun appointed president and the creation of a government including Hezbollah deputies.

Hezbollah has been accused of violating the policy, however, by fighting in neighboring Syria to support the Damascus regime as well as by dispatching military commanders to Iraq and allegedly backing Shiite rebels in Yemen. “A reaffirmation of Lebanese ‘disassociation’, notwithstanding its manifest hypocrisy and the impossibility of it being translated concretely, makes it possible to save face and win a little time,” said Karim Bitar, an expert at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs.

During the cabinet meeting, according to a statement obtained by AFP, Hariri expressed the hope for “a new chance to defend the country together”. “We see how the region is boiling and we must be aware that any misstep could bring the country to a dangerous precipice,” he told his cabinet. Lebanon has been buffeted by regional instability in recent years, particularly by the war in neighboring Syria which has sent more than one million refugees into its tiny neighbour, seeking safety.

The conflict in Syria has also deepened existing tensions, with Hariri’s bloc backing the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad while Hezbollah’s fighters battled alongside the regime’s troops. Hariri’s resignation raised fears that Lebanon could be plunged into chaos, and provoked widespread speculation about whether Riyadh had forced him to step down. He delivered his resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia and spent the next two weeks there amid rumors that Riyadh was holding him “hostage”.

He denied those claims, and after top-level French intervention returned to Beirut where he announced he had “paused” his resignation to hold consultations across the political spectrum. France’s foreign ministry said Friday’s meeting was intended to “support the political process (in Lebanon) at a crucial moment”. “It will send a message both to the various parties in Lebanon and to countries in the region,” the ministry added.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China – will be represented at the meeting, along with Germany, Italy and Egypt. French officials said the goal was to shore up Lebanese institutions, by strengthening the army and supporting Hariri’s economic program, with a view to encouraging foreign investment. – AFP

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