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Les clients d'un café de Beyrouth regardent, dimanche, l'allocution de Saad Hariri, premier ministre libanais, retenu à Riyad depuis le 4 novembre.
Customers of a cafe in Beirut watch, on Sunday, the speech of Saad Hariri, Lebanese Prime Minister, detained in Riyadh since November 4. – Photo credits: ANWAR AMRO/AFP

STORY – For ten days, the resigning Lebanese leader has been held in Saudi Arabia by the powerful sponsors of the Sunni world.

In Beirut

“A particularly strange television interview”… This comment on Twitter, accompanying the interview granted Sunday evening by Saad Hariri, nine days after his surprise resignation, sums up the totally unprecedented nature of the crisis in which Lebanon is plunged. The story could be just as much about a reality TV episode as it is about a spy movie. Sunday, as rarely in such an exercise, the course of the interview was analyzed in the same way, if not more, than the words of the Prime Minister. It was a question of gauging the incredible scenario of a resignation imposed by force on Saad Hariri by Riyadh's new strongman, Mohammed Ben Salman, aka MBS.

When he appears on Saudi television, it is obvious to those who know him that he is not the author of the resignation statement read in a blank voice

According to various testimonies collected in Lebanon and various sources quoted by Lebanese or foreign media, it is established that the Prime Minister brutally cut off all contact with his closest advisers and that he had not informed anyone of his intention to resign, when he was summoned to Riyadh on 2 November. Upon his arrival, Saad Hariri would have been deprived of his phone, his smart watch, and treated without the respect due to his rank. When he appears on Saudi television, at 14 p.m. on November 4, without his watch, it is obvious to those who know him that he is not the author of the resignation statement read in a blank voice. .

The Lebanese leader would then have spent one or two nights in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, where the Saudi princes accused of corruption by MBS are held, before returning to his villa, under close surveillance, and giving scattered “signs of life”, via social media. A photo of him, received by the king, with his watch again on his wrist, is then widely used to attest to the increasingly plausible hypothesis of a prime minister constrained in his movements. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is one of the first to publicly credit it. Before Saad Hariri's party and his family also joined in, revolted that Riyadh even asked them to accept his replacement at short notice by his older brother, Bahaa.

Strange TV moment

This is now also the official version of the Lebanese authorities. To the point that the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, made it known even before the broadcast of the interview, that he wondered in advance about the reliability of remarks not being expressed, according to him, in total freedom. This is why Paula Yaacoubian, the journalist for Future TV, the channel belonging to the Hariri family, had to work from the start to prove the authenticity of the live broadcast. Throughout the interview, she reported on outside information, like the earthquake that shook Iraq on Sunday evening. “The climate is such that I am suspected of taking part in a staging myself,” she said straight away, before trying to confront her interlocutor with the film of the events.

“Did you write your resignation letter yourself? Are you wearing your watch today? Are you free to return to Lebanon?”

Paula Yaacoubian, Future TV journalist

“Did you write your resignation letter yourself? Are you wearing your watch today? Are you free to return to Lebanon? Have you been taken to the Ritz-Carlton? Why did you cut off all contact, including with your loved ones?”… To all these “questions, Saad Hariri had answers intended to deny the thesis of any constraint exerted on him. But, beyond his words, everything in his attitude seemed to contradict his point. As well as the extreme solicitude shown by Paula Yaacoubian towards her interlocutor, at one point on the verge of tears - "take my glass of water, I haven't touched it" - totally dejected, incapable of the slightest sketch of a smile – “you're tired, you want to stop, give me a few more minutes”.

One episode alone sums up this strange television moment, described as humanly painful by many Lebanese, whether they approve of the political figure or not: the camera inadvertently captures the image of a man standing behind the interviewer, a white paper between the hands; then the glare of Saad Hariri, eyes turned towards him. Messages broadcast live on Twitter believe to read terror on his face and build all kinds of scenarios on Saudi pressure exerted live on the Lebanese leader. After a commercial break, the latter felt obliged to deny it.

Saad Hariri said he would return to Beirut "in the coming days". However, he has not set a specific date. No more than he really justified his resignation

In the end, the resigning Prime Minister's televised performance did not contradict the account of the events as it gradually emerged over the days, nor did his intervention completely clarify the situation on the political level. Saad Hariri said he would return to Beirut "in the coming days". However, he has not set a specific date. Nor did he really justify his resignation, when he explained that he wanted to create a "positive shock, in the interest of Lebanon".

The Sunni leader even mentioned the possibility of reconsidering his resignation, if Lebanon resolves to apply a real policy of "distancing" and neutrality in regional conflicts. A message which explicitly targets Hezbollah, Iran's ally and armed wing in the region, which has been openly intervening in Syria for months alongside President Bashar al-Assad and which Saudi Arabia holds responsible for the missile launch launched by the Yemeni Houthis against Riyadh on November 4. An act of war according to the authorities of the Saudi kingdom.

Willingness to de-escalate

These remarks were variously interpreted in Beirut, pending new messages from Saudi Arabia, where the Maronite patriarch, Boutros Raï, went on Monday. For some, Saad Hariri's much more moderate tone towards Hezbollah, compared to that which was his when he declared his resignation, is the sign of a Saudi desire for de-escalation, even an open door to negotiations. For the others, even if the tone of the resigning Lebanese Prime Minister has changed, on the merits the equation he poses remains insoluble, given the current state of the political balance of power in Lebanon.

Source: © Le Figaro Premium – How Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was trapped by the Sauds

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