At a late Saturday dinner in a smoky bar in central Beirut, where patrons were drinking gin from sleek copper martini glasses, the topic was, of course, Lebanon's ongoing political thriller. Two weeks after the mysterious disappearance of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, his fate, and the fate of the suddenly fragile government, were still unknown.
Was Lebanon, once again, headed for the cliff or would the country's fractious political parties put aside their differences for the sake of peace and stability?
Mr. al-Hariri, a Sunni Arab, vanished on Nov. 3 only to resurface in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the next day, when he used a strained appearance on Saudi TV to resign. On Saturday, he popped up in Paris as a guest of French President Emmanuel Macron and said he would return to Beirut by Wednesday, after quick dashes to Cairo and Kuwait, to take part in Independence Day celebrations.
But more than two weeks after he slipped away, the Lebanese people still had no clue why he resigned, what he endured in Saudi Arabia or what conditions, if any, the Saudis imposed on him to allow him to leave the country (Mr. al-Hariri has Lebanese and Saudi citizenship and his wife, Lara, and two youngest children live in Riyadh).
Everyone has a favourite conspiracy theory. Nabil, a property developer in Beirut, said he believed the Saudis were angry at Mr. al-Hariri because he did not support the young new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and may have been part of a plot to depose him. They had total control over Mr. al-Hariri, Nabil said, because his family is in Riyadh and because his failed construction company, Saudi Oger, owes back pay to thousands of employees.
He said it can be no coincidence that Mr. al-Hariri resigned – or was forced to resign – on the same weekend that Saudi Arabia revealed a sweeping anti-corruption drive that came with the arrest or detention of more than 200 princes, businessmen and technocrats.
Loufti, the owner of an importing business, said there is no doubt the Saudis forced Mr. al-Hariri to quit. But he thought his ouster had nothing to with Mr. al-Hariri's possible lack of support for Prince Mohammed and everything to do with the Saudis' attempt to topple the entire Lebanese government, which they must consider a stooge for arch-rival Iran and its powerful political and military proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
There could be some truth in the theories, or they could be wildly off base. What is certain is that the Saudis want Mr. al-Hariri out of Lebanon's political picture, perhaps because his anti-Hezbollah position was insufficiently hostile for their tastes. It appears they have succeeded. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is a pro-Hezbollah Christian, cannot stop Mr. al-Hariri from formally resigning once he reaches Beirut this week (under Lebanese law, he remains the head of government until he formally resigns on Lebanese soil).
But if the Saudis' greater plan is to ensure that the destruction of the Lebanese government follows the destruction of Mr. al-Hariri's political career, they may have badly miscalculated. For the most part, the Lebanese people, the National Assembly's broad array of political parties, the French government and governments of other powerful countries, have rallied behind Lebanon's unity, sovereignty and stability.
No one inside Lebanon, which is roughly divided between parties which are pro-Hezbollah (that is, Iran) or pro-Saudi Arabia, is bucking for a war. The little country was shattered by the 1975-1990 civil war and the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in 2006, and has seen a shocking number of assassinations, including the 2005 murder of Mr. al-Hariri's father, Rafik, who had been prime minister until a year earlier. After the Arab Spring revolutions, the endless wars in Iran and Iraq, the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and the proxy civil war in Yemen, where the Saudis are bombing pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, there is no appetite for more fighting and humanitarian crises. Pope Francis has prayed for Lebanon's stability.
And if the Lebanese government were to collapse, its replacement, much to the Saudis' dismay, might hand even more power to Hezbollah. That process may be under way already. "The President and Hezbollah will decide who the new prime minister will be," says Amine Hotait, the retired Lebanese army brigadier-general who is a law professor and strategic analyst in Beirut. "What Mohammed bin Salman wants is not what he will get."
So far, it looks like the Saudis' effort to reshape Lebanon in their image seems to be backfiring. Getting rid of Mr. al-Hariri might prove a lot easier than turning the government and the whole country against Hezbollah. In the meantime, the Lebanese fear the political crisis could spiral out of control, as so many have in the past. Their appetite for conspiracy theories comes honestly.