TV interview adds to confusion over Lebanon’s prime minister

Saad Hariri widely believed to have been forced to resign from his post by Saudi Arabia

Patrons of a coffee shop in Beirut watch the television interview on Sunday with prime minister Saad Hariri, which took place in Saudi Arabia. Speculation is rampant that he is being held hostage there. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Patrons of a coffee shop in Beirut watch the television interview on Sunday with prime minister Saad Hariri, which took place in Saudi Arabia. Speculation is rampant that he is being held hostage there. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

 

The Sunday evening interview with Lebanon’s prime minister was meant to put to rest the rampant speculation that he was being held hostage in Saudi Arabia.

Instead, it became yet another bizarre episode in a political drama that began with Saad Hariri’s shock resignation from Riyadh on November 4th. He has yet to return to Beirut.

Pale-faced, with dark circles under his eyes, Mr Hariri looked tense and tired during the TV interview – at one point he even appeared to hold back tears. He repeatedly insisted he was free to move around and would return to Beirut within days.

“If I wanted to travel tomorrow, I could,” he said. Lebanese viewers begged to differ.

“It was not at all convincing,” said Kamel Wazne, a Lebanese analyst who runs the American Strategic Studies Centre in Beirut. “All it showed was what a peculiar position he is in? ... I felt a lot of sympathy for a man that is being put under a lot of pressure and stress. He looked exhausted and like he really wanted to come back to Lebanon. ”

The premier’s surprise resignation – and subsequent disappearance from the public eye – sent shockwaves throughout the region. Lebanon, long on the sidelines of the Saudi-Iranian power struggle, looked at risk of becoming its next regional flashpoint.

Mr Hariri is widely believed to have been forced to resign over Riyadh’s frustrations that his government bolstered Hizbullah, the Iran-backed Lebanese paramilitary and political organisation that played a dominant role in his one-year-old government.

Odd behaviour

Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president, has repeatedly raised suspicions that Saudi Arabia is holding Mr Hariri and insisted any comments he made “cannot be seen as an expression of the full will of the prime minister”.

Most Lebanese TV channels did not even air the interview as they fell in line with the argument that its contents should be held suspect. But many Lebanese tuned in to Mr Hariri’s Future TV channel which interviewed him from his Riyadh villa, and took to social media to comment on a string of odd behaviour during the broadcast.

The biggest source of suspicion was a man who appeared in the background holding a piece of paper, raising local speculations that he held instructions for Mr Hariri. Some viewers posted clips of Mr Hariri’s facial expression at the time of the man’s appearance, arguing the premier became frightened. Mr Hariri, clutching his glass, drank so much water that, at one point, the interviewer offered him her own glass as well.

He choked back tears as he expressed gratitude for the widespread calls for his return, which has fostered a rare sense of unity and shared outrage in a country starkly divided by politics and sect. That scene evoked both sympathy and disgust.

“It felt disgraceful and humiliating,” said Farouk Hariz, a bartender in Beirut. “You are watching him and seeing in front of your eyes how easy it is to he controlled by another country ... We’re just a puppet with someone else holding the strings.”

Hizbullah influence

In the interview, Mr Hariri said he had been largely out of contact with Lebanese politicians and regional diplomats because he wanted to “give them time to absorb and reflect” on his resignation. He repeatedly described the move as a “positive shock” to warn Lebanon of the dangers of siding too closely with Iran.

“It was just weird. We’ve entered a phase with no clear expectations for what happens next in Lebanon,” said one western diplomat. “I have no idea what to think any more.”

Hizbullah’s influence has been growing, not only in Lebanon but across the region. It bolstered President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war and sent trainers to join Iranian-backed forces in Iraq. It is now accused by Riyadh of helping the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, which Mr Hariri referred to several times as a prime concern for Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals.

“We cannot continue in this way, where we say we want a policy of disassociation at the same time that we see an actor in Lebanon is working in Yemen and other places,” Mr Hariri said.

Mr Hariri’s main message was for Lebanon to commit to its policy of “disassociation” from regional conflict. Wary of being dragged into the war in neighbouring Syria, which runs along similar sectarian faultlines, Lebanese politicians agreed they would stay neutral. But critics of Hizbullah say that policy was never really followed because of the Shia group’s role in Syria and across the region.

“I want to rescue the country,” he said. “I wanted a positive shock so we would know we are in a dangerous place.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017