Lebanon's Hariri meets Sisi in Egypt ahead of return home

Samer AL-ATRUSH
1 / 3
A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on November 21, 2017 shows Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) being greeted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) upon his arrival in Cairo

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri briefly stopped Tuesday in Egypt for talks on his way back from France to his country, which is reeling from his surprise resignation amid an escalating regional crisis.

Hariri's media office said he met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has sought to defuse the tensions between Hariri's sponsors in Saudi Arabia and the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons.

Hariri's visit to Cairo follows two weeks of deep uncertainty after he announced his resignation on November 4 in a speech from Saudi Arabia.

In a terse televised news conference before he departed Cairo, Hariri thanked Sisi for his support and said he would not elaborate on his resignation until he reached Beirut for independence day celebrations on Wednesday.

Hariri said he and Sisi discussed the need for "distancing oneself from regional policies," in an apparent reference to the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has played out in his country.

"Tomorrow we have independence day in Lebanon, God willing it will be for all Lebanese. Like I said in Paris, my political position will be (clarified) in Lebanon," he said.

A statement from the Egyptian presidency said Sisi "affirmed the need for all parties in Lebanon to reach a consensus... and the rejection of foreign interference in Lebanese internal affairs."

Soon after Hariri landed in Cairo, noisy supporters of the premier took to the streets of central Beirut, honking, cheering and waving flags with the colours of his Future Movement.

Sisi's office said he received a phone call from Lebanese President Michel Aoun in which they discussed "the importance of preserving Lebanon's stability and elevating Lebanon's national interests."

In a speech in the evening, Aoun sounded a defiant note, saying that while the crisis had "passed" his country would not "bow to any opinion, advice or decision that will push it towards internal strife."

"The recent government crisis... it's true it has passed but it was no trivial matter," Aoun said.

Hariri's absence from Lebanon since his resignation sparked rumours he was being held in Riyadh against his will, which both he and Saudi officials have denied.

Speaking after talks in France on Saturday with President Emmanuel Macron, Hariri said he would "make known my position" once back in Beirut.

Hariri's mysterious decision to step down -- which Aoun has refused to accept while he remains abroad -- has raised fears over Lebanon's fragile democracy.

In his resignation speech he accused Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran and its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilising his country.

Hariri -- whose father, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, was killed in a 2005 car bombing blamed on Hezbollah -- took over last year as head of a shaky national unity government which includes the powerful Shiite movement.

A dual Saudi citizen who has previously enjoyed Riyadh's backing, he resigned saying he feared for his life.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir meanwhile insisted from Madrid on Friday that "unless Hezbollah disarms and becomes a political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran".

- Battle for influence -

Hariri's resignation was widely seen as an escalation of the battle for influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

His attempt to step down also coincides with a purge of more than 200 Saudi princes, ministers and businessmen.

Riyadh on Saturday recalled its ambassador to Berlin in protest at comments by Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel which were interpreted as a suggestion that Hariri acted under Saudi orders.

Without mentioning Saudi Arabia directly, Gabriel had said Thursday that he shared concerns about the threat of instability and bloodshed in Lebanon and warned against "adventurism".

"Lebanon has earned the right to decide on its fate by itself and not become a pinball of Syria or Saudi Arabia or other national interests," he said in the week.

Germany has yet to comment on the row, but it has welcomed Hariri's "imminent return to Lebanon".

France, which held mandate power over Lebanon for the first half of the 20th century, plans to bring together international support for Lebanon, depending on how the situation develops.

The French president has also telephoned his counterparts in the US and Egypt, Donald Trump and Sisi, as well as the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to discuss "the situation in the Middle East".

He and Trump "agreed on the need to work with allies to counter Hezbollah's and Iran's destabilising activities in the region", according to a White House statement Saturday.

However, Macron told reporters Friday that France wanted "dialogue" with Iran and aimed to "build peace... not to choose one side over another".