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Questions Still Swirl Around Lebanese Prime Minister's Resignation

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 5:47 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now here's an update on the baffling story of Lebanon's prime minister. Last week, Saad Al-Hariri accepted an invitation to fly to Saudi Arabia. And while he was there, he suddenly announced he was quitting his job. It seemed like a power play by the Saudis, toppling the leader of a near neighbor. Why would the Saudis do that?

Analysts have mostly been left guessing. And now this new development. Lebanon's prime minister gave a TV interview and did not sound like he's quitting after all. NPR's Ruth Sherlock watched that interview from Lebanon's capital, Beirut.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: On camera, Saad Al-Hariri looks nervous and drained. At some moments, he even seems on the verge of tears. In this live interview with Future TV, his political party's channel from the Saudi capital Riyadh, Hariri denies being held hostage. He says he plans to return to Lebanon within days. And he added a plot twist in the drama that has gripped the country the past week. He said he may be tempted to remain as prime minister after all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAAD AL-HARIRI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: This, he says, will depend on Hezbollah meeting certain demands. Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese group that's backed by Iran, has men fighting in the wars in Iraq, in Syria and in Yemen. This, Hariri said, would have to stop. Lebanon must remain neutral and independent. But even as he called for Lebanon's independence from Iran, questions over Hariri's own freedom remain.

At least five local TV channels refused to broadcast his interview, saying they still believe their prime minister is under duress. Many in Lebanon believe Saudi Arabia, which has long ties with the Hariri family, actually forced him to resign. They say the Saudis wanted to remove him as they saw him as being toothless against Hezbollah, which is backed by their rival, Iran.

Saudi Arabia denies this. Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, says Hariri's new suggestion, that he may remain prime minister, is likely the result of heavy international pressure on the Saudi government. She says the Saudis' alleged actions caused widespread concern.

MAHA YAHYA: Yeah, I think this kind of strong-arm tactics obviously caused a lot of alarm and it flies in the face of international norms. So I suspect that this was kind of a way to soften the entire situation.

SHERLOCK: It's unlikely that Hezbollah will meet Hariri's demands to pull out of the region's wars. But, she says, now at least the door is open for negotiation and Lebanon has a chance to keep its prime minister. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.