CAIRO — As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi welcomed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Nov. 21, he stressed the importance of preserving Lebanon's unity and the need to disassociate the country from the conflicts raging in the Middle East. Egypt and Lebanon are bound by a strong relationship that dates back to the 1940s.
A presidential statement issued on Nov. 21 stated that Sisi met with Hariri to discuss the latest developments in Beirut in the wake of Hariri’s abrupt resignation. During his meeting with Hariri, Sisi emphasized the need for the Lebanese parties to uphold the supreme national interest of the Lebanese people and reject any foreign interference in their internal affairs.
The meeting between Sisi and Hariri came hours before the Lebanese prime minister returned to Beirut on Nov. 22 and announced that he postponed his widely controversial resignation, which he had declared from Riyadh on Nov. 4.
Following his meeting with Hariri, Sisi received a phone call from Lebanese President Michel Aoun, during which the two counterparts discussed the political situation in Lebanon.
According to analysts contacted by Al-Monitor, Egypt has played an active role in calming the situation in Lebanon since the announcement of Hariri's resignation, stressing the need to spare the region new battlegrounds. In a press statement issued Nov. 9 on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum, Sisi stressed Egypt’s rejection of any Iranian interference in the Gulf region.
Hariri attributed his resignation to Iran's intervention in his country’s domestic affairs and said he feared being assassinated. He remained in Saudi Arabia after his resignation before he embarked on a tour Nov. 18 that included France, Egypt and Cyprus to discuss his resignation crisis.
Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor that Hariri had visited Egypt before returning to Beirut, as he wanted to derive strength from central Arab parties in the face of Iran. Hariri, he added, had announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia and visited the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which are Arab countries confronting Tehran and whose roles go in line with the Egyptian role in Lebanon.
The day after Hariri announced his resignation, Sisi met with Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri in Sharm el-Sheikh. Berri had arrived in Egypt Nov. 4 to attend the inauguration of the World Youth Forum. During the meeting, Sisi stressed Egypt’s interest in preserving Lebanon’s security and stability. He also told Berri that only the Lebanese should work on finding the political formula that they see fit and that caters to their interests, adding that such interests must be prioritized.
“What Cairo has done aims to serve the Arab national security," Fahmi said. "Egypt is a committed Arab country whenever a crisis erupts, and [Hariri’s] visit conveys an important message whereby the major Arab parties are widely present in the Lebanese arena.”
Fahmi's comments go in line with statements made by the Egyptian president on Nov. 8 concerning his opposition to military strikes against Iran or the Tehran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah because the region cannot afford further unrest.
Hussein Haridi, former assistant to the foreign minister, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt does not want to increase the hotbeds and flashpoints in the region, and it is doing its best to contain any negative repercussions that may arise from Hariri's resignation.”
He said that Cairo's position stems from a conviction that no foreign countries should interfere in Lebanon’s domestic affairs. It also wants to give the internal forces the chance to choose the policies that best fit their country.
In a bid to contain the Lebanese crisis, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry started a six-nation tour on Nov. 12 that included Jordan, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said in a statement Nov. 11 that the visit came based on Egypt's desire to contain any crises that could cause tensions and instability in the region.
Ahmed Youssef Ahmed, the former director of the Institute of Arab Research and Studies of the Arab League, told Al-Monitor that Egypt wants to achieve some kind of Lebanese consensus so that the “Iranian-Saudi” polarization will not be at the expense of Lebanon and the security of the region. He explained that Sisi made it clear from the very beginning that Egypt was against any escalation in Lebanon and was not planning any military actions against Hezbollah.
Tension has been growing between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region ever since Hariri's sudden resignation, as Saudi Arabia accused Hezbollah of being behind the rocket launched into Riyadh from Yemen in early November.
“Egypt is clearly working on protecting Arab national states against any threats,” Youssef said, pointing out that “attempts to blow up the situation in Lebanon will be costly for the entire region because Hezbollah is part of Lebanon.”
He added, “We do not accept that Hezbollah be allowed to enjoy military force at a time when other political movements are not allowed to, but we must recognize that it is a political force in Lebanon and that there are political methods that must be followed in dealing with it. In parallel, Egypt works firmly to ward off any risk that could threaten the Gulf security.”
Sisi asserted Nov. 8 that “the security of the Gulf is a red line,” and added that “others [Iran] should not interfere in our affairs. Just like we say we do not want wars on them, they need to make sure that things do not by any means reach the point of collision because that would not be in anyone’s interest.”
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