, Beirut, Lebanon, Nov 12 – Participants in Beirut’s annual marathon usually run to support medical research or human rights. But this year, Lebanese racers have opted for another cause: their missing prime minister.
Saad Hariri has yet to return to Lebanon since his shock resignation in a televised announcement from Saudi Arabia eight days ago.
Rumours have since swirled that he is being held in Riyadh against his will — and energetic Lebanese literally raced to show him support on Sunday morning.
A bright red billboard welcomed runners to the marathon’s starting line in downtown Beirut with a picture of a sprinting Hariri and the Arabic caption, “We are all waiting for you.”
“We want our PM back!” was printed on several red and white placards, along with a sketch of Hariri’s face.
Young men and women distributed water bottles labelled with the same slogan, as well as caps that read, “Running for you”.
“I needed a cap and I like Lebanon, so I took a hat,” said 30-year-old Nisrine Chamseddine, who had just completed an eight-kilometre (five-mile) race.
Beirut Marathon founder May al-Khalil told AFP on Sunday that a “large group of people are running for the return of Prime Minister Hariri”.
“Lebanon is undergoing exceptional, difficult circumstances, and there are many people who love Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri,” she said.
– ‘Run for Saad’ –
Online, supporters tweeted pictures from the event with the Arabic hashtags “Run for Saad” and “Saad’s coming back”.
Hariri — who enjoys exercise, according to close friends — has taken part in the Beirut marathon in previous years.
But on Sunday morning, tens of thousands of runners gathered for the 15th year of the annual race without their prime minister.
Lebanese president Michel Aoun had urged participants to run for “the return of prime minister Saad Hariri to Lebanon”.
“May the Beirut Marathon tomorrow be a national, athletic demonstration of solidarity with PM Hariri and with his return to his country,” Aoun said Saturday, according to a statement by his office.
He also called on Riyadh to “clarify the reasons that have prevented the return of PM Hariri to Lebanon to be among his people and supporters”.
Aoun has yet to formally accept Hariri’s resignation and has criticised the circumstances surrounding it as “unacceptable”.
In his shock announcement, Hariri accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilising the broader region, saying he feared for his life.
But his subsequent week-long absence from Lebanon has sparked concerns that the ex-premier — who also holds Saudi nationality — is under de facto house arrest in the kingdom.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said Friday that Hariri was “detained in Saudi Arabia, he is banned from returning to Lebanon”.
Hariri has spent the past week in a string of meetings with diplomats and Saudi officials in Riyadh, punctuated by a single trip to Abu Dhabi.
On Saturday, he attended a reception ceremony for Saudi King Salman who had arrived in Riyadh from the holy city of Medina, and also met with the British and Turkish envoys to the kingdom.