Lebanon's Hariri makes comeback on Twitter
Beirut - Lebanon's opposition leader Saad Hariri, who has been absent from the country for nearly eight months, has chosen Twitter as a comeback tool to reach out to followers and take on his rivals Syria and Hezbollah.
The Western-backed ex-premier, who left Lebanon in April after the powerful Shi'ite militant party toppled his government, popped up on Twitter earlier this month, creating an instant buzz and attracting about 25 000 followers so far.
"Well it's about time to make this more up close and personal," Hariri tweeted on November 3. "You [will] be hearing from me more often and I'll be around as much as I can."
Since then, he has devoted more than an hour every evening to respond to questions about politics, food, movies or sports, much to the delight of his constituents but also to jabs by detractors.
The tweets are somewhat of a novelty in a country where citizens have little direct access to their leaders.
Responding to a question on the revolt in Syria, the 41-year-old Hariri at the weekend said he thought it best if the regime of President Bashar Assad, which is battling an eight-month revolt, collapsed.
"I think it will be the best thing for the region," he tweeted.
The billionaire heir has also turned to Twitter to reject accusations by the Syrian government that he is funding anti-regime protesters.
"I am standing with them politically and peacefully, unlike other political parties who deploy with the shabiha," Hariri said, referring to Assad's armed civilian thugs.
Commenting on the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, he said he was in favour of disarming the Shi'ite party.
He also said that if he were still in power he would have arrested four Hezbollah members charged in connection with the 2005 murder of his father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
"We only believe in weapons held by the Lebanese state," he tweeted. "We never were and we'll never be a militia."
Hezbollah forced the collapse of Hariri's government in January after he refused to cut ties with the Netherlands-based tribunal probing his father's murder.
Hariri has since all but disappeared from the political scene and has lived between Saudi Arabia and France, giving no clear explanation for his absence, which has been attributed to security concerns but also to major financial troubles.
His "Houdini act", as one blog put it, has even his supporters questioning his political commitment and the impact his absence has had on the opposition.
"The man has well and truly left the building ...," wrote political blogger Qifa Nabki.
Political commentator Michael Young said Hariri's coalition appears "gripped by confusion" and had better define a clear national role for itself.
"Hariri has been abroad for months, an affront to those who elected him," Young wrote in a recent commentary. "His money problems are genuine and have not yet been resolved, taking a toll on his patronage network and political authority.
"The former prime minister is not out yet, however if his occultation lasts much longer, his leadership will melt."
But Hariri in his tweets has sought to downplay concerns on whether he ever plans to return to Lebanon, saying there was nothing he wished more.
"I will never leave you guys, I will be back," he tweeted on Sunday.