Lebanese prime minister whose resignation shook the region says he will return ‘very soon’

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/lebanese-prime-minister-whose-res
BYBy Louisa Loveluck and Suzan Haidamous
November 12
A TV at a coffee shop in Beirut shows the interview with Saad Hariri. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s recently resigned prime minister insisted Sunday on television from Saudi Arabia that he is “free” to move as he pleases, and, in his first interview since he unexpectedly stepped down while in the Saudi capital, he rejected suggestions by his political allies that he was coerced into leaving his post.

In a live television interview from Riyadh, a tired and sometimes emotional Saad Hariri said that he hoped his resignation would cause a “positive shock” between Saudi Arabia, his regional patron, and its rival, Iran, which backs the Hezbollah movement. Hezbollah plays a dominant role in Lebanese politics.

“We are in the eye of the storm,” he said.

Lebanon has repeatedly become a stage for the regional ambitions of its more powerful neighbors. Hariri’s Nov. 4 resignation came amid heightened tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and coincided with an aggressive purge of rivals by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the cover of an anti-corruption drive. 

The interview aired on Future TV, Hariri’s own station. But in a sign of just how fractious the political moment is for Lebanon, the country’s president, Michel Aoun, said on Twitter shortly before the broadcast that Hariri’s comments may be “in doubt” and “without his will.”

During the hour-long interview, Hariri said his resignation was in the best interests of Lebanon, and he appealed to Iran to stop “interfering” in countries throughout the Middle East.

His departure has caused wild speculation in Lebanon, with politicians across the political spectrum claiming that his hand was forced by Saudi Arabia. The resignation came after a surprise summons to Riyadh, and aides said they had barely spoken to him since, beyond exchanges of pleasantries.

Hariri denied those rumors Sunday. “I am free within the kingdom; if I want to travel, I can travel tomorrow,” he said, in a reference to Saudi Arabia. He said that security arrangements were under review and that his return to Beirut would come “soon.”

Speaking with a Lebanese flag in the background, he again blamed Iran and Hezbollah for destabilizing his country and defended Riyadh’s war of words against its arch foe.

At times, his eyes appeared to dart away from the interviewer, Paula Yacoubian, to a man behind a window of the studio.

Hariri also suggested that he would withdraw his resignation if Hezbollah committed to remaining neutral in regional conflicts.

“There is a Lebanese group that is carrying out certain actions,” he said. “I will not allow for anyone to launch regional wars on Lebanon for regional gains.”

Hezbollah has become a dominant force in Lebanon’s unity government, which was headed by Hariri, and it has sent thousands of fighters to Syria, Lebanon’s neighbor, to support the forces of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. It is also believed to have offered training to Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, which is locked in a destructive war with Saudi Arabia and its allies.

In a Beirut shisha cafe Sunday night, patrons were divided between concern and resignation. “It’s one big political show, isn’t it,” said Mustafa Khalil, a 34-year-old engineer. “He’s not his own man anymore. He is saying what he needs to survive.”