Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri greets his supporters upon his arrival at his home in Beirut (AFP)
BEIRUT – The timing couldn't have been better scripted: after a dramatic fortnight including his shock resignation, in which many saw the hand of Saudi Arabia, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon late on Tuesday evening, just in time for the country's independence day.
He had vowed to return for Lebanon's 74th anniversary of its independence from France, and the night before, his private plane landed in Beirut after three days in Paris, a visit to Egypt and a stopover in Cyprus.
'Our beloved country needs exceptional efforts, from everyone, to protect it from risks and challenges'
– Saad Hariri, Lebanese prime minister
Upon arrival, his first gesture was to visit his father’s tomb in central Beirut. Rafik Hariri – also prime minister – was assassinated in a massive car bomb attack in 2005. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up in 2009 at The Hague, has accused four members of Hezbollah of the murder. The party denies all charges.
On Wednesday, independence celebrations started around 8:30am in downtown Beirut. The official guests arrived following the protocol – first the chief of the army, shortly followed by the minister of defence and then Lebanon’s grand trio: Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and the president of the republic, Michel Aoun.
Saad Hariri waves from his balcony in Beirut (MEE/Pierre Pernot)
Both Aoun and Berri greeted Hariri warmly, indicating their desire to maintain national unity at a time when Lebanon is facing exceptional turmoil.
Thousands of Lebanese came to watch the independence day military parade.
“I am very happy that the prime minister came to the ceremony. It is very important to have our three main leaders together once more,” said Bassam, 26, the son of an army official.
“I saw Saad Hariri coming towards the stage, he seemed sad, he looked like there was something wrong, maybe because of all the rumours that have been circulating about him,” he added.
Hariri announced his shock resignation from Saudi Arabia on 4 November.
During his resignation speech he lashed out against the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah over Lebanon, but Aoun, among others, soon alleged that Riyadh had forced him to quit and held him in the kingdom.
Case of the missing PM
And many Lebanese have questioned whether his resignation decision was forced on him by Saudi Arabia, a country with whom the Hariris have always had a close relationship, in an attempt to increase pressure over Iran, and whether he was ever going to come back.
“War is all around us but today, the Lebanese army showed us that it is getting stronger and stronger,” said Hadi, a soldier who came to watch the parade.
'I am here today because I love Saad Hariri. He is the only peaceful Lebanese politician, the only one that doesn’t have blood on his hands'
“It is also important that Saad Hariri came back – he is our prime minister and we respect him as such,” he added.
Neither Hariri nor Aoun spoke during the ceremony, but on the eve of independence day, however, Aoun gave a televised speech in which he called upon the international community and Arab countries to respect the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri lands at the Beirut airport on Tuesday night (AFP)
But for some Lebanese, such a request comes too late.
“Unfortunately, Lebanon is not independent, many countries have their hands on our politics,” said Oussama, a charity worker who came from the northern city of Tripoli to participate in the celebrations.
Right after the parade, Aoun and Hariri met in private at the presidential palace in Baabda, just outside of the capital.
And coming out of the meeting, Hariri delivered an unexpected speech, and exactly what his supporters had been waiting for.
“Today I offered my resignation to the president. He asked me to delay it to allow further consultations … I have agreed to his request, hoping that it would provide a serious opportunity for dialogue,” he said.
'He gave us hope. He showed us what independence means. He is the only one who can save our country and protect it'
“Our beloved country needs exceptional efforts, from everyone, to protect it from risks and challenges. At the forefront of these efforts is the need to commit to the disassociation policy from the external wars and struggles … that can harm internal stability and the brotherly relations with the Arab brothers,” he added.
Back in the centre of Beirut, thousands of his supporters were waiting to welcome him home.
“He gave us hope. He showed us what independence means. He is the only one who can save our country and protect it from harmful groups such as Hezbollah and their weapons,” said Kamal, a bank employee who came to offer his support.
Supporters came carrying Lebanese flags but also the blue flags of Hariri’s political party, the Future Movement.
Singing patriotic songs, they chanted Hariri’s name, and carried banners praising the returned prime minister.
The journey continues
At 2pm, Hariri arrived at his home in central Beirut and addressed the cheering crowd.
“We will continue the journey together,” he said smiling, and with a newfound charisma, went to the streets to greet his supporters.
“I am here today because I love Saad Hariri. He is the only peaceful Lebanese politician, the only one that doesn’t have blood on his hands,” said Mirna, an accountant from Beirut, wearing a Hariri T-shirt.
Supporters of Saad Hariri wave the Lebanese flag alongside the Saudi and Future Movement flags as they gather outside his home in Beirut (AFP)
“Today is a unique day because the Lebanese from all backgrounds, Christians and Muslims, are united,” said Issam, a civil engineer who had driven for four hours to come to Beirut to see Hariri.
“I feel very confident today – Hariri is the only person until now who is able to protect Lebanon,” he added.
“We just want to live in peace and have good relations with all Arab countries. If Hezbollah agrees to compromise on its Iranian agenda, Hariri will remain prime minister,” said Nader, another Hariri supporter.
But away from the protests, some Lebanese were still doubtful.
'This is nothing but a show. Hariri – like all the other politicians – never did anything for those people. The economy is collapsing and still the masses are chanting – it’s very sad'
“The Sunnis probably needed a moment like this to gather and feel powerful but in the end the crowds are being played,” said Maria, a shop-owner.
“This is nothing but a show. Hariri – like all the other politicians – never did anything for those people. The economy is collapsing and still the masses are chanting – it’s very sad.”
“We still don’t know what is going to happen. How long is he really going to stay for? What if they can’t find a compromise?” asked Toufic, who works in consulting.
The next few days will see Hariri meeting with various Lebanese factions, in search of a new political compromise.