BEIRUT: A dichotomy in Lebanon has ensued in the wake of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s first televised interview since his shock resignation last week. The political establishment's somewhat positive response toward his remarks seems odd when taking into consideration that President Michel Aoun warned prior to the interview against taking Hariri’s statements at face value due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his resignation.
The fact that the international community's efforts to defuse tensions between Lebanon and the kingdom have hit a standstill makes Hariri’s statements all the more surprising, according to political sources. These sources were of the belief that Hariri, in his televised interview, would double down on his resignation speech's criticism of Iran.
Hariri, however, has toned down his rhetoric, which sources believe was the result of efforts by the United States and France to contain the crisis and ensure Hariri's return to Beirut. The U.S. has called Hariri a trusted ally while France has asserted the need to maintain Lebanon's stability.
By demanding Hariri's immediate return to Lebanon, Lebanese officials had sought to gain some time to weather the storm and have succeeded in doing so. With Hariri keeping the door open on the possibility of withdrawing his resignation, prompting Aoun to stress that the political deal that led to his election and the formation of a national unity Cabinet under Hariri still stands, discussions over how the crisis will unfold have shifted. In essence, observers now expect a relatively calm political standoff amid heavy economic challenges on the horizon.
If Hariri’s resignation is followed by parliamentary consultations that lead to his re-nomination as prime minister, he is unlikely to succeed in forming a new Cabinet. Under this scenario, the current cabinet would act as caretaker until the upcoming parliamentary elections in May.
Concerns, however, remain over whether polls will actually take place amid a regional standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran; a standoff that had on previous occasions plunged Lebanon in a political vacuum with Tehran blocking the election of a president for more than two years.
Thus, Hariri’s anticipated return to Lebanon is unlikely to solve the crisis that has gripped the country, as the conditions he has set to diffuse the situation will not be met by Iran, especially in light of Hezbollah’s increased incursions in Yemen. Iran has its own agenda in the region, and will seek to consolidate the recent advancements it accomplished, further derailing Saudi Arabia's own plans.
A feeling of sympathy for Hariri has also emerged following his interview, during which he seemed down and tired but also honest in his remarks. His emphasis on shielding Lebanon from economic sanctions and regional conflicts has resonated positively with the Lebanese citizenry. His interview has, in essence, showed his worth in spite of the difficult circumstances he finds himself in.
However, Lebanon’s political establishment remains preoccupied with the circumstances surrounding Hariri’s resignation, failing to acknowledge the underlying reasons highlighted in his speech. Although his return is a priority, officials have continued along the same path, ignoring the upcoming challenges facing Lebanon. Hariri spoke of wide-ranging sanctions hitting Lebanon in the coming months, and numerous Arab states asking their citizens to leave the country gives weight to these warnings.
In other words, Lebanon faces challenging times ahead, particularly after Saudi Arabia called a meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers in coming days to discuss Iran and Hezbollah's meddling in the affairs of Arab countries.
This will only add to the difficulties confronting Lebanon particularly in terms of the country's foreign policy vis-à-vis Arab states.
A version of this article appeared in Annahar's Arabic print issue on November 14, 2017. The article was adapted into English by Georgi Azar.
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