Ex-PM Hariri back in Lebanon after three years abroad

Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician, has been in self-imposed exile between France and Saudi Arabia

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Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri arrived back in Lebanon on Friday for the first time in three years, in a move seen as a bid to reassert his leadership within the Sunni community.

Footage broadcasted by local television stations showed Hariri arriving, without any prior announcement, at government headquarters in Beirut, where he met Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

Hariri, regarded as one of Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politicians, has been in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia and France since 2011.

He left Lebanon after his government was toppled and has now returned following a deadly incursion by Islamist militants in the northeast of the country.

“The situation requires the presence of a leading figure in the Sunni community. There has been a serious vacuum in the Sunni community, and only a politician of the caliber of Saad al-Hariri could fill that,” Hilal Khashan , a professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut, told Al Arabiya News.

Despite his self-imposed exile, Hariri also heads the mainly Sunni, yet secular, March 14 Alliance, which has a sizable 60 seats in the 128 seat parliament.

“All political figures in Lebanon face a security risk; he cannot stay outside Lebanon when he is leading a big coalition,” Beirut-based President of the Center for Middle East Studies Hisham Jaber told Al Arabiya News.

Jaber said Hariri returned to fulfill his “national duties,” by “putting the Future Movement in its right place after receiving the Saudi donation to the Lebanese army,” he added, in reference to Hariri’s announcement that Saudi Arabia would donate $1 billion in military aid to the Lebanese security forces.

The aid is meant to assist the army in the fight against Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Nusra Front, and the breakaway group of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The Future Movement, which has 26 seats in parliament, is the largest parliamentary bloc, and forms a significant part of the 14 March Alliance.

Hariri’s visit follows a deadly incursion by Islamist militants who crossed over from Syria and seized the mainly Sunni town of Arsal in the northeastern part of Lebanon last Saturday. The gunmen withdrew from the town on Wednesday after five days of fighting with the army but took with them a number of Lebanese soldiers as captives.

Returning back with a heavyweight Saudi grant “was necessary to give his return a significant push by better equipping the Lebanese army and balancing a chord in Lebanese politics,” Khashan said.

The Lebanese group Hezbollah, fighting alongside the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against has further deepened the divisions within Lebanon between forces that support Assad’s regime and those who oppose it.

“The division in Lebanon over Syria cannot allow for radical foreign groups to battle on Lebanese ground. We are talking thousands of militants and the perilous ISIS… Hariri bears a national responsibility,” Jaber said.

Hariri’s return comes amid the dangerous prospects of Islamist radicalization.

“There has been, in the last three years, a vacuum that has formed in the Sunni community [in Lebanon]. This was becoming increasingly dangerous because this community was becoming more and more radicalized,” Michael Young, a political commentator, told Reuters.

However, Khashan believes that “the Lebanese Sunni community is a moderate one,” adding that Saudi Arabia backed Hariri in order for him to “maintain the mainstream Sunnis as A bulwark against radicalism.

“The security situation is more precarious than [when] he left the country three years ago, the situation has become so grave that it requires the presence of a strong Sunni leadership, regardless of the personal risk.”

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