BEIRUT — Lebanon’s Saad al-Hariri on Wednesday shelved his decision to resign as prime minister at the request of President Michel Aoun, easing a crisis that had deepened tensions in the Middle East.
Hariri made his announcement after returning to Beirut for the first time since he quit abruptly on Nov. 4 in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia. Top Lebanese officials have said Riyadh forced him to quit and held him in the kingdom. Riyadh and Hariri deny this.
At the presidential palace near Beirut, Hariri said he hoped his move would lead to “a responsible dialogue…that deals with divisive issues and their repercussions on Lebanon’s relations with Arab brothers.”
Hariri said all Lebanese sides must commit to keeping the country out of regional conflicts, a reference to the Iran-backed Hezbollah political and military movement. Hezbollah’s regional military role has greatly alarmed Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s long-time ally.
“I presented today my resignation to President Aoun and he urged me to wait before offering it and to hold onto it for more dialogue about its reasons and political background, and I showed responsiveness,” he said in a televised statement.
The resignation had shocked even Hariri’s aides. He returned to Lebanon late on Tuesday night after French intervention.
Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, had refused to accept the resignation because it happened in “mysterious circumstances” abroad. He had called Hariri a hostage in Riyadh.
Hariri appeared to express relief that Aoun had not accepted the resignation right away. He thanked Aoun on Wednesday for respecting constitutional norms and “his rejection of departing from them under any circumstances”.
The resignation pitched Lebanon to the forefront of the regional rivalry between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran, which backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and raised concerns of a protracted crisis.
In his resignation speech, Hariri had cited fear of assassination, and attacked Iran along with Hezbollah for sowing strife in the Arab world.
Hundreds of Hariri supporters packed the streets near his house in central Beirut, waving the blue flag of his Future Movement political party. The Sunni leader told them he would “stay with (them)… to be a line of defense for Lebanon, Lebanon’s stability and Lebanon’s Arabism”.