Hariri says resignation on hold, pledges to stay in Lebanon

Rana Moussaoui
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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri greets supporters outside his Beirut home on November 22, 2017

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Wednesday he was suspending his surprise resignation, pending talks, providing a potential way out of a political crisis that has rocked the country.

In a rousing address before large crowds of supporters gathered outside his Beirut home, he pledged he would stay in the country and protect its "stability".

Lebanon has been thrown into turmoil by Hariri's shock November 4 announcement from Saudi Arabia that he was stepping down, followed by a prolonged absence.

The resignation was seen as a ratcheting up of tensions in the long-running rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and raised fears that Lebanon would be paralysed by regional tensions.

Hours after his arrival back in Beirut, Hariri met with President Michel Aoun, who had refused to accept the premier's resignation until he returned to Lebanon.

"I discussed my resignation with the president of the republic who asked me to wait before submitting it... and allow for more consultations," Hariri told reporters afterwards.

"I agreed to this request."

Hariri said he hoped his decision would "allow for a responsible dialogue in a serious manner... that would settle disputes."

In announcing his resignation, he had levelled harsh criticism at Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, saying they had taken over Lebanon and were destabilising the region.

He also said he had been forced to leave Lebanon because of threats to his safety, invoking the 2005 assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

- Iran-Saudi struggle -

But he left the door open to withdrawing the resignation if the powerful Shiite Hezbollah group pulled back from involvement in regional conflicts.

Speaking in the evening after meeting parliament speaker Nabih Berri, Hariri called on "everyone" to respect this "policy of distance", saying that would "improve our relations with our Arab brothers ".

Hariri accuses Hezbollah of violating Lebanon's policy of "disassociation" from regional conflicts by fighting alongside Syria's government and assisting Huthi rebels in Yemen.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has said the group was open to talks, though whether any real compromise could be reached remained unclear.

The decision brings down the temperature after weeks of tensions, and some analysts said it suggested a deal could be in the works to save the consensus government Hariri formed just under a year ago.

"What this is saying, (is) there is still room for backroom discussions and negotiations," said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre think-tank.

"Hariri would not have agreed to this (otherwise)," she added.

"There's already some consensus behind it. There's a deal that is being worked out, we still don't know what the details are."

There has been heavy international involvement in the search for a way out of the crisis, with France stepping in to invite Hariri to Paris after weeks of speculation that he was being detained in Riyadh.

Hariri, who holds Saudi citizenship and is closely allied with Riyadh, strongly denied he was being held in the kingdom, but nonetheless accepted the invitation and arrived in Paris on Saturday.

Before continuing to Beirut Tuesday, he stopped for talks in both Egypt and Cyprus, hinting at the various tracks under way to ease tension.

- Hero's welcome -

"The international community understands that really it's in no-one's interest to have one more failed state in this region," said Yahya.

"Definitely there is an effort to... calm things down a little bit."

It is unclear whether Hariri's government, which was formed in late 2016 as part of a deal across political lines, can be saved.

Lebanon has long been riven by tensions between Hariri's Saudi-backed political bloc and that led by Iran-backed Hezbollah, a stalemate that left the country's presidency empty for more than two years.

But despite the potential struggles ahead, Hariri appeared relaxed as he first attended a military parade to mark the country's Independence Day, and then appeared at his Beirut home, where large crowds of supporters had gathered.

As celebratory music played, the crowd chanted "Saad, Saad" and waved the blue flag of his Future Movement party.

"I'm staying with you," Hariri said, in an emphatic speech delivered at the door of his home in the centre of the capital.

"You are my real family," he said, before soaking up his newfound popularity with a walkabout near his downtown residence.

Outside his house, 32-year-old Hala waved a blue Future Movement flag enthusiastically.

"He managed to bring Lebanon together," she told AFP.

"His return is very important, even if there are many things we don't understand."