Hariri has played his cards right so far, but can he stay the course?
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Saad al-Hariri never really resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister. Otherwise, he would not have retracted or suspended his resignation at the request to President Michel Aoun as soon as he returned to Lebanon. If he had seriously wanted to leave office he would have remained in Riyadh, where he spent two weeks in mysterious circumstances after announcing his resignation from there, or in France, where he later travelled, or arranged to be granted asylum in Cyprus which he briefly visited on his way back.
Anyone who saw Hariri and his body-language on live TV in Beirut on Wednesday will have been struck by how different he was to when he appeared on the Saudi al-Arabiya channel on 4 November to read out his resignation statement. Here was a man who had clearly recovered his freedom, giving his Lebanese citizenship precedence over his Saudi citizenship, and upholding the political deal with Hezbollah and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) that enabled him to return to the premiership last year.
Hariri was visibly overjoyed as he took part in Lebanon’s official independence day celebrations and then addressed a rally of his supporters and mingled with crowds of well-wishers who treated him a like a returning hero. He would never have done this if – as stated in his resignation speech – he faced an imminent threat to his life that forced him to flee the country.
The face-saving way out provided for Hariri, by announcing that his resignation was being put on hold pending further consultations, was deftly arranged by the Lebanese political establishment. It wanted to avoid embarrassing Hariri or rubbing more salt into Saudi wounds, and sought to contain the resignation crisis as far as possible and minimize the losses for Lebanon. Moreover, Hariri is not confrontational or outspoken by nature and does not want to burn bridges with his Saudi backers, despite the abusive and humiliating treatment to which they subjected him during the two weeks he was held in Riyadh.
While Aoun managed the crisis admirably and observed the highest degree of self-restraint, he also had the courage to speak candidly and describe Hariri as having been ‘detained’. Hariri for his part acted wisely when he bowed before the storm and acceded to his captors’ demands, not because he agreed with them, but because he knew that this bizarre episode would resolve to his advantage in the final analysis. Yet he should still muster the courage to break his silence and reveal what really happened frankly. For Hariri does not represent only himself but the institutions and people of Lebanon.
When Hariri decided last year to do his deal with Aoun and Hezbollah – coincidentally getting rid of his Saudi-style goatee and growing a full beard instead – he gave is Lebanese side precedence over his Saudi side and Lebanon’s stability precedence over his business dealings in Saudi Arabia, where he had been subjected to much harassment and extortion.
Can he stay the course now that has returned to his Lebanese home? And do the supposed threats to his life now emanate from there, or from elsewhere?
It is hard to tell. We are still in Act I of this drama, but so far, Hariri has played it right.