Hariri marks Lebanon independence as foreign powers loom large

Bloomberg | Donna Abu-Nasr: Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon after a near-three-week absence to tackle a crisis triggered by his shock resignation from Saudi Arabia, a decision that has thrust his fragile country to the fore of an escalating showdown between the kingdom and Iran.

Hariri, a longtime Sunni ally of Saudi Arabia, joined Lebanon’s top leaders in a celebration marking the 47th Independence Day on Wednesday just days after former colonial master France began efforts to restore political stability. He is expected to announce whether he’ll step down officially or remain in office.

Long known as a battleground for proxy conflicts, Lebanon is again in the cross-hairs of a confrontation between regional powers. Hariri resigned on Nov. 4 in a speech from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and accused Iran and the Hezbollah militants it backs of destabilizing his country. Hours later, pro-Iran Yemeni rebels fired a missile targeting Riyadh’s international airport. The kingdom urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.

“Even the semblance of independence, always more symbolic than real in a heavily penetrated country like Lebanon, the Lebanese can’t really enjoy today because their prime minister is a political hostage of a foreign country and Hezbollah is pursuing to perfection the regional agenda of another foreign country,” said Bilal Saab, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Hariri, in a televised interview from his home in Riyadh last week, said rescinding his resignation hinges on whether Hezbollah would agree to remain neutral in regional conflicts. The militant group plays a key role in Lebanon’s government but its armed wing is fighting in Syria to support of fellow Iran ally President Bashar al-Assad.

The timing of Hariri’s resignation coincided with the arrest of senior royals and businessmen in Saudi Arabia, raising questions whether the 47-year-old, who also holds Saudi citizenship, had been coerced into quitting. Hariri and Saudi officials denied the accusations.

French President Emmanuel Macron contacted Saudi leaders and later invited the prime minister for talks in Paris over the weekend. Hariri also held talks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo on Tuesday before heading to Beirut.