Enormous posters of Saad al-Hariri, the popular Lebanese Prime Minister who mysteriously vanished two weeks ago, only to surface in Saudi Arabia, hang almost everywhere in central Beirut. Mr. al-Hariri abruptly resigned while in the Saudi capital, but the Lebanese want him back and, by Friday, their man had still not made it home.
Most Lebanese, regardless of sect in this impossibly diverse and complicated Levant country, viewed Mr. al-Hariri's disappearance as a Saudi-inspired coup d'état. Why else would the government head of an allegedly sovereign state resign in another country?
The answer was obvious to the Lebanese. Lebanon is not really sovereign; it is a proxy state, caught in the middle of a power struggle between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, with no control over its destiny. "We're a small country in a bad neighbourhood waiting for everyone else to make decisions for us," said Riad Tabbarah, an economist and author who was the Lebanese ambassador to the United States in the 1990s. "No major decisions are made internally here. We're merely observers."
Mr. al-Hariri's resignation in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on Nov. 4 was evidently forced by the Saudis and has, once again, thrust Lebanon into political crisis. Lebanon's future has not looked so uncertain since the chaotic and violent era of 2005 to 2008. In those years, the country was shattered by the assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, the father of Saad al-Hariri; a short but devastating war in southern Lebanon between Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed political and military group in Lebanon, and Israel; and deadly clashes between Hezbollah and Sunni militiamen in West Beirut.
While the Lebanese do not expect another civil or regional war, at least not imminently, they are well aware that peace cannot be assured as tensions between the dominant regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, intensify by the day. Riyadh blames Iran and Hezbollah for threatening Saudi Arabia's southern flank by sponsoring a war in Yemen, one that has embroiled the Saudis in a two-year conflict that has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe. It appears the Saudis think Mr. al-Hariri was overaccommodating to Hezbollah even though he, who is Sunni and leads Lebanon's Future Movement, has links to Saudi Arabia and has denounced Hezbollah as a destabilizing force within Lebanon.
Earlier this month, the Saudis accused Iran of an "act of war" when they shot down a missile over Saudi Arabia that they claimed was fired by Iranian- and Hezbollah-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. "Whenever we see a problem, we see Hezbollah acting as an arm or agent of Iran and this has to come to an end," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a Riyadh news conference on Thursday.
When asked about the future of their country, Lebanese inevitably sprinkle their comments with references to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and the United States. The message: We Lebanese are merely pawns in a great regional power struggle.
Nivine Apdsouki, 30, a Beirut accountant, blames the Saudis for Lebanon's sudden bout of political instability. "It is obvious the Saudis put him under pressure to quit," she said, as she perched on a bench and fiddled with her smartphone. "The Saudis are talking about war to make Hezbollah give up their weapons and Hariri can't make Hezbollah do that."
The fresh crisis seemed to come out of nowhere and was triggered by Mr. al-Hariri's absence without leave. Most Lebanese assume he was under effective house arrest in Riyadh and will return to Lebanon only under terms set by Saudi Arabia's King Salman and his son, Mohammed bin Salman, who became Crown Prince in June and set his sights on stemming Hezbollah's power. The Saudis consider Hezbollah, whose flag is almost identical to the one used by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, as a terrorist group "that kidnapped the Lebanese regime," to use Mr. al-Jubeir's words.
This week, French President Emmanuel Macron, who went to Riyadh to try to encourage the Saudi rulers to ratchet down the tensions between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, invited Mr. al-Hariri and his family to Paris, although the Élysée Palace denied the French government was offering them exile. (France, which occupied Lebanon between the two world wars, maintains close relations with Lebanon, where French is still widely spoken.)
On Saturday, Mr. al-Hariri met Mr. Macron for lunch at the Élysée but, in brief public comments, said nothing to explain why he had resigned in Saudi Arabia instead of Lebanon. He confirmed that he would return to Beirut by Wednesday, where he will participate in the Independence Day celebrations and make "my known my position" after meeting Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
Mr. al-Hariri was in Paris with his wife, Lara, and their eldest son. There was no sign of their two youngest children, who may have stayed behind in Riyadh, where they have been attending school. Their absence raised suspicions among the Lebanese that Mr. al-Hariri was under tight Saudi control since he mysteriously vanished from Lebanon on Nov. 3, only to surface the next day in Riyadh, and that the children remained in Saudi Arabia to give the Saudis leverage over Mr. al-Hariri.
Mr. al-Hariri, 47, who was born in Saudi Arabia and is a dual Lebanese-Saudi national, was finally expected to arrive in Paris on Friday night or Saturday and make an undignified return to Beirut early in the week. But to do what? Would he officially submit his resignation to Lebanese President Michel Aoun and flee to France or stay put to lead a caretaker government? Would the government collapse and would new elections succeed in diluting Hezbollah's powerful influence in the Lebanese parliament or reinforce it?
Some lawmakers believe the delicate neutrality cobbled together under Mr. al-Hariri – neither officially pro-Iran nor pro-Saudi Arabia (even if certain parties overtly favour one over the other) – is about to face its most severe test.
"We are a bargaining chip in potentially destructive regional conflict," said Ghassan Moukheiber, a lawmaker who is a member of the Change and Reform parliamentary group, which is aligned with Mr. Aoun's Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement. "Saudi Arabia is apparently now saying, 'You are with us or against us,' but that won't work in Lebanon. The next phase for us will have to be the redefinition of what is meant by neutrality."
Lebanon has always been a governance nightmare. This tiny, ancient country, wedged between Syria and Israel on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, was a major Christian centre during the waning stages of the Roman Empire. In later centuries, the Levant (which includes modern-day Lebanon and Syria) was conquered by Muslim Arab armies. In the 11th century, the independent Druze faith, which contains elements of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, emerged from Shia Islam.
Today, Lebanon is a mosaic of more than a dozen sects, making it the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East. While no recent census has been done, Islam, of the Sunni and Shia variety, is thought to constitute a bit more than half the population, with Christians such as the Maronites making up about 40 per cent. The Druze are the biggest minority group, at about 5 per cent.
The sects have not always been able to keep the peace. The extremely violent 1975-1990 civil war not only pitted Muslims against Christians (and, at times, Christians against Christians and Muslims against Muslims) but dragged in foreign powers, notably Syria and Israel. Hezbollah was born in the early 1980s, when Iran assembled various militant Shia groups under one roof, primarily to resist the Israelis, who had invaded Lebanon in 1982 in their effort to snuff out Palestine Liberation Organization forces.
Since then, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has gone from strength to strength inside Lebanon, becoming in effect a state within a state. Hezbollah fighters deprived Israel of a clear victory in 2006, when Israel invaded southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah rocket attacks. "The Israelis were not successful in 2006," said Kamel Wazne, a foreign-policy analyst in Beirut. "Hezbollah is 10 times stronger than they were in 2006. They're better trained, have weapons that can reach anywhere inside of Israel and gained a lot of fighting experience in their confrontations in Syria against Daesh [Islamic State]."
Today, Lebanon has accommodated its sects through a delicate power-sharing agreement that came into place after the civil war. Lebanon's presidential post is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister's post goes to a Sunni and the president of parliament, or Speaker, is Shia. Broadly speaking, the parties are divided into pro-Iranian and pro-Saudi camps. Mr. al-Hariri is in the pro-Saudi camp and Mr. Aoun, the President, has an alliance with Hezbollah.
Somehow, the power balance has managed to work in recent years. Mr. al-Hariri, who became Prime Minister in December, 2016, was given considerable credit for ensuring the unity government, and the country itself, did not come apart at the seams – hence his cross-party popularity. But that peace may not last as Hezbollah gains power and irks the Saudis, who have been trying to forge an anti-Hezbollah alliance with Israel and the United States as the war in Yemen bogs down.
Samy Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, a social-democratic party that is primarily supported by Maronite Catholics and which used to be called the Lebanese Phalanges Party, said Hezbollah's power within the government is underestimated. By his calculation, 17 of the 30 current cabinet ministers are pro-Hezbollah. "No government in Lebanon is formed without the approval of Hezbollah," he said. "Now, they are the decision makers. Lebanon is not a Sunni-Shia issue. It's a sovereignty issue … We totally support any pressure to end Iranian interference in this country."
How would that happen? Not fast and not easily, seems to be the consensus. Even some pro-Saudi parties think Iran would never allow Hezbollah to be neutered. "Hezbollah will not disappear and will not leave Syria or Yemen," said Rached Fayed, a member of Mr. al-Hariri's Future Movement policy-making committee.
Ahead of the weekend, it was not known whether Mr. al-Hariri would have any role in shaping the crucial, although perhaps hopeless, task of keeping both Iran and Saudi Arabia happy in a country they both consider their vassal state. Lebanese politicians and technocrats of every variety expect him to officially resign as Prime Minister once he reaches Beirut – the President did not recognize the shock resignation Mr. al-Hariri announced on Saudi TV in Riyadh.
It's an open question what will happen after that. The President might ask him to lead a caretaker government leading up to new elections. He might, and run again for Prime Minister. Or he might decide he can't please either side and quit politics, leaving it up to his successor to sort out the Lebanese mess. The wild card is Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, Mohammed, who might have zero tolerance for any Lebanese government that doesn't rein in Hezbollah. "The Saudis wanted Hariri to kick Hezbollah out of government," said Mr. Tabbarah, the former ambassador. "The Saudi Crown Prince has a new view of the role of Saudi Arabia and it's an aggressive one."
In the meantime, the Lebanese are on tenterhooks, unsure whether their country will have a prime minister of a functioning government in the next weeks or whether the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia could leave Lebanon in tatters – peace always seems to be a short-lived commodity in this country.
Perched with his girlfriend on his scooter next to Beirut's Mediterranean promenade, the Corniche, Iyad Hassanieh, 37, a supermarket employee, said he fears foreign powers have pushed his country to the precipice once again. "Saudi Arabia is making plans to control the entire Middle East and Israel is behind this plan," he said. "I think there will be a disaster. There is always a disaster here."
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