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Hariri is back and so is Lebanon's status quo

© AFP / by Rana Moussaoui | Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (C) arrives at Beirut International Airport after a nearly three-week absence dominated by his surprise resignation

BEIRUT (AFP) - 

His shock resignation and mysterious stay in Saudi Arabia had sparked fears of chaos but Prime Minister Saad Hariri's homecoming appears to signal a return to what Lebanon's political class does best: the status quo.

The past three weeks saw an unprecedented episode in Lebanon's rocky political history that started with the premier popping up on television from Saudi Arabia to announce his resignation.

He cited threats to his life, blamed Iran for the region's woes, and then he appeared again for a television interview days later with an exhausted and worried look that prompted rumours he was in fact being detained by the Saudis.

Some Lebanese residents started packing their bags, fearing yet another institutional crisis or, worse, a devaluation of the currency and even a return to armed civil strife.

When he returned late Tuesday, after what looked like an "exfiltration" by France, he hinted he was open to dialogue with Hezbollah and froze his resignation, with the blessing of the president, who is also a political rival.

The circumstances of his trip to Saudi Arabia and almost three-week absence remain a mystery but Lebanon's fractious leaders now seem to be busy with the familiar task of seeking an often sterile but reassuring consensus.

"We're back to one these wonky deals Lebanon knows so well, a compromise nobody is really happy with," said Paris-based analyst Karim Bitar.

Even the powerful Iranian-backed movement Hezbollah, whose military arsenal is central to the main rift in Lebanese politics, appeared pleased to have Hariri home and contemplate "a glimpse of a return to normalcy".

- 'Gaping vacuum' -

French-Lebanese analyst Ziad Majed said the leadership in Beirut was now engaged in "a damage control exercise".

Lebanon will find itself "in a state of waiting, on standby, to make sure things do not spiral out of control".

The Saudi-backed 47-year-old Hariri, a prime minister for the second time, had formed a coalition government late last year that includes Hezbollah, which answers directly to Tehran.

Such deals can be crippling for reform but afford the small country some level of protection from flare-ups between the various political patrons of its different factions.

"For now, the government is temporarily resuscitated. With its revival, the Lebanese people are getting back one gaping vacuum," the French-language Beirut daily L'Orient-Le Jour wrote in an editorial Friday.

Hariri was among Lebanon's leaders celebrating Independence Day on Wednesday and there are now few visible signs that the former French colony just experienced one of the most outlandish sequences in its recent history.

"Hariri has bought himself more time but none of the core issues are solved. In the coming months, he's going to be right in the crossfire," Bitar predicted.

"One the one hand, he will have to lead this government that includes Hezbollah, and on the other he can't stray too far from the line imposed by Saudi Arabia," he said.

- 'Weak consensus' -

A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saudi Arabia probably realised they had gone too far by forcing Hariri to resign.

"The Saudis have no strategy in Lebanon, the way they handle things is dictated by their outbursts and their frustrations," the diplomat said. "Lebanon is the kingdom of weak consensus, something the Saudis hate.

"They want to contain Hezbollah but every time they try, they find themselves losing ground," he said.

It remains unclear what the terms of Hariri's return were but analysts said that while the issue of Hezbollah's arsenal would remain non-negotiable, the group's involvement in foreign conflicts could be on the table.

"Lebanon cannot bear the burden of Hezbollah's expansion," Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said in an interview on Thursday, referring to the group's presence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Hariri is resuming a tough balancing act but his recent emphasis on "disassociation" from regional power struggles and on giving priority to Lebanon sounds like wishful thinking, according to analysts.

"Without a real Saudi-Iranian modus vivendi, it's hard to see how Lebanon can be fully sheltered from regional turmoil," Bitar said.

by Rana Moussaoui

© 2017 AFP