With every passing day that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri remains in Saudi Arabia, the mystery surrounding his circumstances deepens.
Today Lebanese President Michel Aoun broke his silence, declaring Saad’s continued absence to be an “act of aggression” against Lebanon. The 82-year-old Aoun is a Maronite Christian and an ally of Hezbollah, which puts him on friendly ground with Iran as well.
Prime Minister Hariri himself continues to insist that nothing is amiss with his now 12-day foreign sojourn, at least so far as the Saudi authorities are concerned. Hariri has made several public statements declaring that he is not being held against his will, and that he resigned because he feared a plot against his life back home in Lebanon.
The Saad Hariri saga has raised the troubling possibility of Lebanon being pulled back into the Saudi-Iran contest for hegemony in the Middle East. Harari himself has been vague about when he might return to Lebanon: “soon”; “in two or three days” (Nov. 12); “when the security situation allows me to submit my resignation.” But until he sets foot in Beirut, Lebanese politicians will be bracing for any new sign of escalation.
The fine balance of Lebanese politics. Lebanon is a country where balance is everything: balance between political factions, religions, and the foreign proxies that claim to represent them. Any disruption in this balance can have bloody consequences, as evidenced in Lebanon’s long and horrible civil war through the 70s and 80s.
Saudi Arabia, the self-appointed patron of Lebanon’s Sunni population, believes that this balance is now tilting in favor of Iran, the self-appointed patron of its Shiites. Much of this belief boils down to the election of Michel Aoun as president in 2016, which came after two years of deadlock between the pro-Saudi and pro-Hezbollah factions – a period where the office of president remained vacant. The breakthrough came when Saad Hariri relented and finally acquiesced to an Auon presidency. It was seen as a major victory for Hezbollah since Auon’s Christian religion gave the paramilitary group cross-sectarian credibility.