Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 June 2020

Lebanon struggles to honour Rafik Hariri's legacy

Fifteen years after the former prime minister was killed, his work is being undone

Supporters of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri following Hariri's death outside his house in Beirut 14 February 2005. Hariri was killed in a huge explosion in central Beirut. AFP 
Supporters of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri following Hariri's death outside his house in Beirut 14 February 2005. Hariri was killed in a huge explosion in central Beirut. AFP 

Living in a new era of relative calm was only just becoming normal for the people of Beirut. By February 14, 2005, Lebanon had experienced nearly 15 years without open conflict.

Political instability and occupation by Syrian soldiers plagued daily life, but the extreme violence of the country’s sectarian civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, finally looked as though it might fade into memory. That day in February, however, Lebanon’s new normal was dealt a deathblow.

Using a van packed with one tonne of TNT, assassins controlled by Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah targeted the motorcade of Rafik Hariri – Lebanese prime minister during two periods in the 1990s and early 2000s – as it rolled along Beirut’s Corniche, a seaside promenade that Hariri himself helped regenerate.

The imperfections of the power-sharing system have been magnified and wielded by Hezbollah – which lacks majority support, but controls parliament – against the people, who have taken to the streets once more

The colourful high-rises lining the Corniche are a symbol of the economic boom Lebanon experienced under the prime minister’s stewardship. They soar over the coastline, built upon waves of investment he attracted throughout the post-war period. Moreover, they are symbols of the towering figure that was Rafik Hariri.

Hariri was the young son of a farmer when he left Lebanon, and spent nearly two decades in Saudi Arabia moulding himself into one of the wealthiest construction magnates in the Middle East. By the mid-1980s, he was back in his homeland, using his resources and influence to help pull it out of its brutal civil war. In 1989, in a deal drawn up by Hariri and struck in the Saudi city of Taif, Lebanon’s factions agreed to peace in the form of a new constitution mandating power-sharing between competing religious groups.

The constitution was far from a perfect solution, but back then it was the only solution. And Hariri’s combination of charisma, pragmatism and alliances with western and Gulf allies proved crucial in making it all work in the service of the Lebanese. He worked to maintain the volatile Lebanese pound’s peg to the US dollar. He also played a careful balancing act, dividing contracts to reconstruct destroyed infrastructure between sectarian elites, but did so comfortably in the knowledge that it would get the job of rebuilding Lebanon done.

Hariri-led administrations had much else to contend with: healing the civil war’s wounds, looking after Palestinian refugees and re-establishing Lebanon’s sovereignty. Syria – Lebanon’s neighbour and a belligerent in the civil war – refused to leave Lebanese territory even after the Taif agreement was signed.

Hariri was also the calm, confident face that post-war Lebanon needed. When facing the West, his economic liberalism and business-mindedness reassured European and American investors that the new Lebanese economy was a worthy investment. When facing his own people, his can-do attitude taught an entire generation that there is more to aspire to than blind sectarianism. And when facing Damascus, he helped cultivate a grass-roots movement among the Lebanese to present a united front against Syrian occupation.

The last of these was what brought about Hariri’s demise. Convulsing with grief in the wake of his death, the anti-occupation movement swelled. By April 30, 2005, Syria announced a full withdrawal. Lebanon was free, but shaken.

Fifteen years later, the country’s footing is no more stable. The imperfections of the power-sharing system have been magnified and wielded by Hezbollah – which lacks majority support, but controls parliament – against the people, who have taken to the streets once more. The pound remains pegged to the dollar officially, but its black-market value is plummeting. The future of the wider economy, on the other hand, is pegged to Iranian interests – leaving it vulnerable to American sanctions. Buffeted by its leaders’ ineptitude and malevolence, Lebanon is now a pale shadow of the land Rafik Hariri helped to revive.

But Hariri’s life ought to continue to inspire. If there is one lesson to be learnt from his leadership, it is that anything in Lebanon that starts to crumble can one day be rebuilt, stronger and more beautiful than ever.

Updated: February 13, 2020 07:27 PM

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