Sunday 18 August 2019

Lebanon's PM to declare political stance upon return to Beirut

Emmanuel Macron, centre right, and his wife Brigitte, greet Saad Hariri, second left, his wife Lara, and their son Hussam at the Elysee Palace in Paris (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Emmanuel Macron, centre right, and his wife Brigitte, greet Saad Hariri, second left, his wife Lara, and their son Hussam at the Elysee Palace in Paris (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri says he will return home in the coming days and will declare a political stance for the first time since making a strange resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia that unleashed fears of a crisis in Lebanon.

Mr Hariri and his family met Saturday with French President Emmanuel Macron, who invited the Lebanese leader to Paris to dispel fears he was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will.

Mr Macron is seeking to calm tensions and avert a proxy conflict between Saudi-backed and Iranian-backed camps in Lebanon.

The appearance in Paris - looking relaxed and posing with his wife and older son on the steps of the Elysee Palace with the French presidential couple in front of a large crowd of journalists - contrasted with his limited-access, carefully choreographed appearances from Saudi Arabia.

Mr Hariri told Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Saturday he will take part in Independence Day celebrations in Beirut on Wednesday, according to Macron's office.

After his meeting with Macron, Mr Hariri told reporters: "God willing, I will attend Independence Day in Lebanon and will declare my political stance from Lebanon and after meeting President Michel Aoun."

"As you know I have resigned and we will talk about this matter in Lebanon," he said after thanking Mr Macron, who he added "expressed pure friendship toward me that I will never forget".

The independence day ceremony is usually headed by the president, prime minister and parliament speaker, and Mr Hariri's presence could help calm uncertainties that have escalated since his strange and surprising resignation announcement on November 4 from Saudi Arabia.

However, Mr Hariri's political status is murky. Lebanon's president refused to accept the resignation, accusing the Saudis of holding him against his will.

A high official in Macron's office said his place is first in Beirut, "which is the only place where he can hand his resignation to the Lebanese head of state".

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with French presidential policy, found it normal Mr Hariri would keep any announcement about his political stance for his fellow citizens.

Before leaving Riyadh, Mr Hariri dismissed as "rumours" reports about his alleged detention in the kingdom.

In his televised resignation announcement, Mr Hariri had cited Iran and Hezbollah for meddling in Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. He also said he was afraid for his life.

Saudi Arabia on Saturday asked its citizens for the second time in less than two weeks to leave Lebanon "as soon as possible" given the "circumstances" there. That raised fears of more punitive actions to come.

The French presidential official said it is essential that Lebanon be protected from "negative" foreign influences because the country needs stability and a strong state.

The official didn't name any specific nations but said Lebanon should be protected from the "dangers that regional crises can pose to it".

The Arab League is due to hold a meeting on Sunday in Cairo at Saudi Arabia's urging where the Lebanon crisis and Iran's role in the region are expected to be discussed.

Just before leaving Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri met with the Saudi Crown Prince and other senior officials, according to a member of his political party and two Lebanese television stations.

He landed before on Saturday at an airport used for private jets in Le Bourget north of Paris, and came in a convoy to his Paris residence in a high-end neighbourhood, where police stood guard. Mr Hariri frequently stays in France thanks to decades-old family ties here.

He held private talks with Mr Macron and then they were joined by Mr Hariri's wife Lara al-Azm and elder son Hussam and Mr Macron's wife Brigitte for lunch.

Mr Hariri's two younger son and daughter, Abdul-Aziz and Loulwa, remained in Saudi Arabia because they have school on Sunday, said Okab Saqr, a member of Hariri's parliamentary bloc.

The official with the French presidency said France is not worried that Hariri left two of his children in Saudi Arabia.

"We have no reason to be concerned about this," the French official said, answering questions about whether, as some have suggested, Saudi Arabia could use the children's whereabouts to maintain pressure on Hariri.

Mr Hariri's exact next steps after his planned visit to Lebanon are unclear. A French official said Saturday that France is offering him the necessary support during this time of political turmoil in his country. The official was not authorised to be publicly named.

Mr Macron said he received Mr Hariri "with the honours due a prime minister," even though he has announced his resignation, since Lebanon hasn't yet recognised it.

While Mr Macron insists he's not offering "exile," Mr Hariri's return could be complicated by Lebanon's internal tensions.

During a phone call on Saturday morning, Mr Macron and Mr Aoun spoke about a return of Mr Hariri to Lebanon that could help make Lebanese institutions "function normally again", the French presidential official said.

It is part of a broader Macron strategy to reassert French influence in the region, while the United States under President Donald Trump is increasingly seen as unpredictable or disengaged.

Mr Macron's office says France's strategy is to talk to all powers in the region and not to appear as choosing a camp.


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