Cairo — Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in Egypt on Tuesday and went straight into talks with the Egyptian president who, together with France's leader, is reportedly trying to mediate a way out of the crisis in Lebanon that would involve rolling back Hariri's resignation.
Hariri, who flew in from Paris, resigned in a televised message on Nov. 4 from Saudi Arabia, a highly unusual move that raised suspicions he may have been forced to step down by his Saudi patrons as part of Riyadh's escalation against Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. The Shiite militant group is a key member of Hariri's ruling coalition and Lebanon's single most dominant force.
A dual Saudi-Lebanese national with vast business interests in the kingdom, Hariri was due to fly to Lebanon after his talks with Egypt's Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to attend Wednesday's Independence Day celebration.
The celebrations are traditionally attended by the president, the prime minister and also parliament speaker — three pillars of Lebanon's political system, with the president traditionally a Maronite Christian, the speaker a Shiite and the prime minister a Sunni.
Hariri met el-Sissi at the presidential palace in Cairo's upscale Heliopolis district. El-Sissi was later due to give a dinner in honor of his guest, according to Hariri's press office. It was not immediately clear whether they would speak to reporters.
In Lebanon, the army chief called on troops to stand firm against any attempt to incite strife in the country amid the crisis triggered by Hariri's resignation. Gen. Joseph Aoun's comments came in a memorandum to the soldiers on the eve of Independence Day.
The military, he said, "should firmly confront any attempt to take advantage of the current circumstances with the aim of inciting strife." He also called on troops be on high alert along the border with Israel, to face any "threats or violations by the Israeli enemy."
Hariri arrived in France on Saturday at the invitation of Macron, who has been trying to calm tensions and avert another proxy conflict in the region, between Saudi-backed and Iranian-backed camps in Lebanon. After meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, Hariri said he would return in time for Wednesday's celebrations to Lebanon, where he said he would "declare my political stance."
"As you know I have resigned and we will talk about this matter in Lebanon," Hariri said.
However, his political status remains shrouded in uncertainty. Lebanon's Christian president, Michel Aoun, has refused to accept Hariri's resignation, accusing the Saudis of holding him against his will. Hariri denies this.
Media reports and analysts say el-Sissi and Macron have been trying to convince Hariri to negotiate with other Lebanese leaders a way out of the crisis, thus preventing the country's delicate political balance from unraveling and plunging it into a prolonged crisis that would fuel tension in the region.
News of the joint Egypt-French effort to persuade Hariri to find a way out of the crisis was reported by Al-Akhbar, an authoritative Beirut daily that takes an anti-Saudi stand. It said in its Tuesday edition that French and Egyptian officials discussed Lebanon's future in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on the sidelines of el-Sissi's visit to the EU member Mediterranean island nation. El-Sissi returned home from Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon.
The Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat alluded to French and Egyptian efforts in a front-page report on Tuesday.
"Hariri may be looking for comforting words and inspiration from el-Sissi," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, who pointed out Egypt's historical role as the patron of Lebanon's Sunnis before Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, succeeded it in that role.
After its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran emerged as patron of Lebanon's Shiites, embracing Hezbollah and nurturing it until it became the single strongest political and military group in today's Lebanon.
"What the Egyptians and French need to do is to convince Mohammed bin Salman" to spare Lebanon a political crisis, he said, alluding to widespread suspicions that the Saudi crown prince, King Salman's son, was behind Hariri's resignation as part of the kingdom's conflict with Shiite and non-Arab Iran.
Egypt under el-Sissi, a general-turned-president in office since 2014, has forged close ties with the Saudis, who are his country's main Arab financial backer. He has, however, managed to pursue regional policies different from those of Riyadh, particularly in Syria and Yemen, without inflicting serious damage on relations with the Saudis.
Responding to Riyadh's escalation against Iran and Hezbollah, el-Sissi earlier this month said the region already was so fraught with tension and instability that it did not need a new crisis. But he also renewed his pledge to come to the rescue of Gulf Arab allies and benefactors if their security was directly threatened.