Lebanese government officials and senior sources close to Hariri believe that Riyadh forced him to step down and has further placed him under effective house arrest since he touched down in Saudi Arabia on November 3, a day before he announced his shock resignation in a televised address aired from the kingdom’s capital.
However, in his first interview since he flew to Saudi Arabia, Hariri described himself as a “free man” who intended to “return” to his home country “within days,” denying widespread speculations that he had been on house arrest since he filed his resignation from the Saudi capital. Riyadh says the Lebanese premier has stayed in Saudi Arabia of his own free will.
On Monday, several visitors to President Aoun said in separate remarks that he gave positive assessment of comments made by Hariri in the Sunday interview regarding his upcoming return to Lebanon.
“President Aoun expressed his pleasure at Hariri’s announcement of his return to Lebanon soon,” a source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Hariri cited several reasons, including the security situation in Lebanon, for his sudden decision. He also said that he realized a plot was being hatched against his life. Furthermore, Hariri also accused Iran and the Lebanese resistance movement, Hezbollah, of meddling in the Arab countries’ affairs; an allegation the two have strongly rejected. Hezbollah is part of the coalition government led by Hariri.
In the interview, Hariri added that he would be willing to “rescind the resignation” if intervention in regional conflicts, particularly “by Hezbollah,” stopped.
In response, Aoun was also quoted as saying of the premier that “rescinding his resignation is one of his options.”
Hariri’s resignation has still to be accepted by the president. On Sunday, Aoun said that Hariri was living in “mysterious circumstances” with restricted freedom in Riyadh.
The TV appearance by Hariri was also filled with bizarre moments. According to AP, at one point during the interview, Hariri's eyes were wide open, moving to the back of the room as the camera caught a man in the back corner, behind the interviewer, holding what appeared to be a rolled paper.
Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry on Monday pledged to keep up pressure on Saudi Arabia not to impede Hariri's return, the al-Akhbar paper reported, citing sources within the ministry.
Earlier in the day, Cardinal Bechara el-Rai, a top Lebanese Christian religious figure, flew to Saudi Arabia for a two-day visit in order to meet the seemingly trapped premier. El-Rai heads the Maronite sect, which is Lebanon's largest Christian community and the Middle East's largest Catholic church, to which President Aoun also belongs.
Prior to his departure, El-Rai told reporters that the Lebanese people had been “unsettled” by Hariri’s shock resignation and his return to the country, as he had promised, would restore normal life to Lebanon that was rocked by his unexpected move.
“The Lebanese people have been waiting for him (Hariri) to return, because the situation has come to a stop and the Lebanese people have been unsettled,” El-Rai said, adding, “They (the Lebanese) will not rest until he returns, so that life returns to normal.”
The senior Christian figure added that he would “carry these concerns” to Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and “wish well.”