BEIRUT: Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon Friday, ending what he called was “the harshest penalty in my life” – a three-year period of being forced to live abroad over security concerns.
The Future Movement leader said he had come to Beirut to oversee the spending of a $1 billion Saudi grant aimed at protecting Lebanon from growing terrorism, whose dangers Hariri described as “fateful.” Analysts said his return would also play a vital role in countering jihadist threat by boosting Sunni moderation.
“I returned today to Beirut after an absence of three years and four months. This period was the harshest penalty in my life and the return is the most important reward,” Hariri said during a meeting of March 14 leaders at the former prime minister’s downtown residence.
Hariri also held talks with Prime Minister Tammam Salam and security officials on ways and means to spending the grant.
“This is because the danger of terrorism is serious and fateful, and any complacency in facing this danger means opening the door to discord and to the end of Lebanon,” Hariri said.
Hariri’s surprise return to Beirut was praised by politicians from across the spectrum as a move that would enhance moderation at the expense of extremism.
Riyadh announced a $1 billion grant earlier this week to help the Lebanese Army fight the growing threat of terrorism, following days of clashes between the Army and Islamist militants from Syria in the northeastern town of Arsal.
“I want to emphasize that the main function of this grant is to support the Army, the security services and the state. In other words, this grant is a contribution to Lebanon’s stability in the face of all attempts to sabotage coexistence between the Lebanese,” Hariri said.
“Today, the most important thing is to support the state and help the Army and the security forces to carry out the duties entrusted to them in preserving security and stability across all of Lebanon,” the former premier explained.
The Future Movement leader said his party’s role was to protect moderation and prevent the spread of extremism.
“I want to focus on the role of the Future Movement in preventing any attempt to ignite discord because fueling extremism will lead nowhere,” Hariri said.
Hariri stressed that electing a new president was the responsibility of all political parties in the country, rather than himself only.
“Many say that my return is related to the election of a new president. I would have hoped that this would happen, and that my first activity would be to visit the presidential palace and meet with the president or go to Parliament to elect a new president,” Hariri said.
“In this respect, I want to emphasize that electing a new president is the responsibility of everyone, and it is not true that this is the responsibility of Saad Hariri alone,” he added.
“It is time to put an end to the babbling about this issue and to open the door to a broad consensus to elect a president, and move toward national solidarity to face the ongoing challenges,” Hariri said.
Hariri left Lebanon shortly after the collapse of his national unity government in January 2011, citing security reasons.
March 14 leaders praised Hariri’s return, saying it offered hope for the future of the Lebanese.
“The March 14 parties affirm their full adherence to the state and all its political, military and security institutions as the only guarantee for the security, stability and Muslim-Christian coexistence of the Lebanese,” the leaders said in a statement issued after the meeting.
They renewed their call for the election of a president and thanked Saudi King Abdullah for his $1 billion grant to bolster the Lebanese Army and security forces in the battle against terrorism.
Earlier, Hariri joined a security meeting at the Grand Serail chaired by Salam and attended by Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and other security officials along with Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Defense Minister Samir Moqbel to discuss the $1 billion Saudi grant.
Kahwagi said the Army needed aircraft among other hardware essentials, to help it combat terrorism, noting that the Saudi grant was a guarantee for arming the military to fight terror.
Saudi King Abdullah telephoned Salam and expressed his solidarity with Lebanon “in this critical phase and his keenness to strengthen Lebanon’s security, stability and sovereignty.”
The king expressed his concern over the recent clashes in Arsal, affirming that the kingdom stood beside Lebanon in its battle against terrorism.
He also informed Salam that he entrusted Hariri with overseeing the spending of the $1 billion grant, saying he would like the donation to exclusively meet the pressing demands of the Army and security forces.
Machnouk said the Saudi grant would be more than enough to guarantee security for Lebanon.
“The grant is more than sufficient to ensure the security of a small country like Lebanon, but the process of accepting it should pass through the Cabinet,” Machnouk said, adding the meeting had focused on “the mechanism to follow for accepting and disbursing the grant.”
Hariri held his first meeting Friday morning with Salam at the Grand Serail after visiting the grave of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in Downtown Beirut.
An honor guard greeted Hariri as he walked on a red carpet toward the ancient building, which was packed with security officials and politicians gathered to welcome the former prime minister.
Asked by reporters whether he had received guarantees for his safety, Hariri, surrounded by a number of journalists, said: “God protects us all.”
From the Grand Serail, Hariri headed to his residence in the capital’s downtown, where Future Movement officials including his aunt, MP Bahia Hariri, were eagerly waiting for his long-awaited arrival.
Upon his arrival, Hariri held separate talks with U.S. Ambassador David Hale, who did not make any comments after the meeting, as well as Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Asiri. Later, the former prime minister chaired a meeting of his Future parliamentary bloc.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and a support base for Hariri, residents offered sweets to passersby in celebration while others cruised along roads in Akkar and Beirut with Hariri’s pictures and the Future Movement’s blue flag plastered on their vehicles, honking and cheering for their leader’s return.