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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Lebanon's Hariri 'pauses' resignation

Saad Hariri has ‘paused’ his resignation as Lebanon’s Prime Minister.

Speaking in Beirut, to which he has returned for the first time since 4 November, when he controversially resigned his post on Saudi Arabian television, Hariri said the decision has been requested by Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun.

He said: ‘I presented today my resignation to President Aoun and he urged me to wait before offering it and to hold onto it for more dialogue about its reasons and political background, and I showed responsiveness.

‘I hope this will open a new gateway for a responsible dialogue...that deals with divisive issues and their repercussions on Lebanon’s relations with Arab brothers.’

It is certainly a more conciliatory message than that of his resignation speech, in which he claimed ‘Arabs… will chop off the hand of those who try to… interfere in and disrupt our lives.’

Thought to refer to Iran, the major regional ally of Hizbollah, with whom Hariri shares a reasonably successful (if not always entirely harmonious) coalition government, the statement (and wider resignation) shocked even Hariri’s closest allies, who said it used language uncharacteristic of their colleague.

Combined with the relative difficulty people experienced in trying to contact him, and his relative unresponsiveness to those who managed to, speculation increased that Hariri had read a pre-prepared speech written by the Saudi Arabian government (which is the major opponent of Iranian influence in the region*) which had also placed him under house arrest.

*Saudi interest may of course go further. The Saudis have been strong opponents of Assad and had Hariri’s resignation, as well as the effective declaration of war the state made against Lebanon in the days that followed, caused a genuine constitutional crisis – as of course it could have done, by pitting Sunni against Shi’a in the state – it is at the very least likely that a significant portion of Hizbollah may have been pulled back to Lebanon from Syria (and, if Saudi Arabia is correct, also Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is engaged in a protracted war – though Hizbollah, which has a record of honesty about its actions, if not always their intent, says it is not fighting in Yemen) which in itself would have significantly weakened the Assad alliance in Syria, and the Houthi forces in Yemen (again, the latter only if Saudi Arabia is right, and Hizbollah is lying).

The political situation in Lebanon is complex, largely because of the state’s civil war, which ended only in 1990, after 15 years.

Under the Taif Agreement (which also ordered both Israel and Syria, who had each occupied parts of the nation, to leave), the state’s 128-seat parliament must be shared equally by Christians (Maronites, 34 seats; Eastern Orthodox, 14; Melkite Catholic, 8; Armenian Orthodox, 5; Armenian Catholic, 1; Protestant, 1; other Christian minorities, 1: 64 seats) and Muslims (Sunnis, 27; Shi’ites, 27; Alawites, 2; Druze, 8: 64 seats).

Further, the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker a Shi’ite.

This results, predictably, in coalition governments, and at present, the Shi’ites are represented largely by Hizbollah, which under the Taif agreement were allowed to remain armed, and now constitute an organised and battle-hardened (having fought alongside Assad and the Iranian army in the Syrian Civil War, despite Lebanon officially having no position on that war) militia, as well as the strongest Shia political force in Lebanon, while the Sunnis’ major party is Hariri’s Future Movement.

However, it also means that Lebanon’s response to regional events seldom pleases any of the state’s neighbours.

For example, inside Syria, Assad has welcomed the assistance of Hizbollah (Iran and Hizbollah’s major reason for taking part in the war is their shared fear of Sunnis taking power if Assad, an Alawite, is removed) but simultaneously angered by Lebanon consistently sheltering refugees fleeing his war machine.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, supports the official Lebanese neutrality, and its assistance to Sunni refugees from Assad, but has been enraged by Hizbollah’s work in propping Assad up and helping keep him in power.

Inside Lebanon, the political system is also directly affecting refugees. Because President Aoun is a right-winger.

He is often painted as an ‘ally’ of Hizbollah, but in fact this is more a ‘marriage of convenience’ because while Hizbollah wants to forcibly return Syrians to their homeland because that will reduce the ‘embarrassment’ to Assad that so many people (1.25m) having fled him pose, and because in a nation of just 5m people, 1.25m mainly Sunni newcomers reduces further the Shi’ite influence on Lebanese public life, Aoun wants them removed because he believes Lebanon should not pay for the care of foreigners (though the religious and cultural changes posed by such a proportionally-massive number of people certainly also plays a part).

For the moment, at least, and certainly on the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Aoun and Hizbollah are widely united. Hariri, on the other hand, as a Sunni and a largely centrist politician, is far more open to the safeguarding of Syrian refugees, and of Lebanon maintaining a position of neutrality in the Syrian Civil war.

Hariri’s statement, earlier today, did contain a specific reference to this situation, when he said: ‘all Lebanese must commit to keeping the country out of regional conflict,’ which is, once again, a far less ‘aggressive’ stance than his resignation speech had taken.

He added: ‘I thank Michel Aoun for his determination to protect Lebanon’s stability, his respect for its constitution, and his rejection of departing from it under any circumstances.’

Hizbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who had also called for Hariri’s return in the wake of his 4 November announcement, said ‘Hizbollah is open to any dialogue and any discussion.’

At the Lebanese independence celebrations today (Wednesday 22 November) Hariri sat in the Prime Minister’s place, alongside Aoun and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.

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