Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced Wednesday he was putting his resignation on hold, more than two weeks after he shocked the country by saying he was stepping down.
Speaking hours after he returned to Beirut, Hariri said he had accepted President Michel Aoun’s wish for him to suspend his resignation to allow for more consultations on the reasons behind the move.
Hariri announced he was standing down on November 4 while in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, saying he feared his life was in danger. Lebanon said it could not accept his resignation until he returned to the country.
Aoun said at the time Hariri was being held against his will in Riyadh – a claim Hariri denied – and speculation swirled in Lebanon that he was being held hostage.
Hariri finally returned to Beirut late Tuesday, where his first stop was the grave of his slain father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
On Wednesday he attended an Independence Day military parade in Beirut alongside the President before meeting with Aoun at the presidential palace.
Hariri later tweeted: “Our beloved nation requires at this precise moment in its life exceptional effort from everyone, in order to protect it as it faces danger and challenges. These efforts start with an adherence to a policy of neutrality with regards to everything that hurts internal stability and our brotherly relations with the Arabs.”
Hariri, a Sunni politician, said he looked forward to “a genuine partnership of all political forces” that would put Lebanon’s interests first, keep the country together and help to rebuild the state.
The political crisis has stoked fears of conflict between the Saudi-backed government faction and Hezbollah, a powerful Iranian-backed Shia militant group whose political wing is the most powerful bloc in Lebanon’s fractured coalition government.
Supporters’ joy and fears
Hariri’s next stop Wednesday was at his political headquarters in Beirut, where loyal supporters had gathered amid music and dancing to welcome him back.
Hundreds of men, women and children waved the blue party flags of Hariri’s Future Movement, as others held Lebanese or Saudi flags aloft.
Addressing the cheering throng, Hariri gave a rousing speech before venturing into the crowd to shake people’s hands.
“We will stay together and we will continue together, so we can be the defensive line for Lebanon, its stability and its Arab identity,” he said.
“I can’t tell you the joy we felt when we heard him say the words ‘put on hold.’ His existence in itself is security,” Manar Aaqoub, a 26-year-old banker, told CNN before Hariri’s arrival at the gathering.
“There’s a major hope that he’ll stay,” she added. “A country without Saad is no country. There would have been a great sadness if he had resigned.”
Maher Hussein, 23, a handyman, said: “Saad Hariri holds the balance in Lebanon. If he resigns, the country explodes and goes to the abyss. We don’t recognize anyone else for Sunni leadership except for Saad. No Saad, no government.”
However, Ahmad Shadi, 28, who heads a local political office for Hariri’s party, voiced doubts that Hariri would suspend his resignation for long, and speculated that he would leave Lebanon again in the coming days.
“He’s not staying. He’s trying to calm the country down for now,” Shadi said. “We want him to stay but he has something else in mind. He has conditions to offer.”
Shadi added that he was “ready to pick up arms” if needed. “I support a war in Lebanon if Hezbollah doesn’t comply with the conditions of the Arab countries, so that the balance of power in this country changes,” he said.
Asked his view on the latest developments, engineer Mohamad Majzoub, 64, said it was up to Hariri to judge what to do. “No one knows as much he knows. I trust him 100 percent,” he said.
“Maybe we need a big shock in order to get rid of the problems we have of some certain parties holding arms outside of the government, meaning Hezbollah.”
Shortly after Hariri resigned, Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan warned the Lebanese that they have to choose “either peace, or to live within the political fold of Hezbollah.”
Meanwhile, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, suggested that Hariri was not a free man, and that his statement had been dictated by Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia had strongly backed both Saad Hariri and his father Rafik in its bid to grow its influence in Lebanon by trying to counter Hezbollah’s expanding authority.
The sense of uncertainty in Lebanon was fueled by the delay in Hariri’s return to the country.
Hariri visited Cairo and Cyprus on Tuesday before flying into Beirut. While absent from Lebanon he also traveled to Gulf states and met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi reported from Beirut and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Sarah Sirgany and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.