x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Five years on: 'Hariri did not die in vain'

Five years after bomb murder, thousands gather again in Martyrs' Square to hear Rafik Hariri's son defend his new relationship with Syria.

BEIRUT // Tens of thousands of mourners and political supporters of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri arrived at Beirut's Martyr's Square yesterday to commemorate the popular Sunni Muslim leader's murder five years ago as his son, the current prime minister, attempted to bolster the fading political movement sparked by his father's death.

"Five years ago, you came down to this very square to demand justice and freedom - and we are not turning back," Saad Hariri told the cheering crowd. One of them, Zeina al Sidani, who was carrying a Lebanese flag in one hand and a red rose in the other, said: "I am here to say Rafik Hariri did not die for nothing. We will continue to fight for our independence." One month after Hariri died in a car bomb attack along with more than 20 other people in 2005, a reported million people gathered in this same square with the hopes of unifying Lebanon's fractured political environment into a cohesive non-sectarian political force. It briefly succeeded. The government, then widely seen as a Syrian puppet was forced from power, and within months Syria itself was forced, by those who believed it complicit in the murder, to withdraw the military and security apparatus that dominated Lebanon for almost 30 years.

But despite a resounding win in June's parliamentary elections and the arrival in 2008 of a president, Michel Suleiman, widely seen as Lebanon's most independent in decades, Mr Hariri needed to use yesterday's event to rebuild momentum for his "March 14" movement. The alliance has been plagued by defections, indiscipline and a nagging sense by many Lebanese voters that determining actual accountability for the assassination has been put aside by both the international community and even Mr Hariri himself. His visit to Damascus last year for a meeting with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, did nothing to dispel those doubts.

"We learnt the truth when Hariri kissed Assad," said Joelle, a pharmacist, who was working just a few hundred metres from the rally yesterday. To fight the appearance that political realities shelved much of the promise of the March 14 movement, including the visit to Damascus and a power-sharing agreement with his bitter political and religious foes in Hizbollah, Mr Hariri tackled some of the tougher issues with a defence cheerfully received by his political supporters, who composed the vast majority of the crowd.

Mr Hariri said his visit to Damascus was "part of inter-Arab reconciliation" efforts launched by Saudi King Abdullah, who preceded him to the Syrian capital. "My visit to Syria was part of that initiative," Mr Hariri said, prompting jeers from the crowd in downtown Beirut. "I am keen on launching a new phase of ties between Lebanon and Syria as two sovereign, independent countries." Mr Hariri's ally Amin Gemayel, a former president who heads the Christian Maronite Phalange Party, said the path to reconciliation with Syria was a long one.

"We want Syria to take concrete steps, with a deadline, to bring to an end issues that are still hanging between our countries," Mr Gemayel said. His son Pierre, a former cabinet minister, was gunned down in 2006. Absent from Mr Hariri's side on the platform yesterday was one of his father's closest political allies, Walid Jumblatt. The Druze chieftain and leader of the powerful Popular Socialist Party is expected to meet Mr Assad in the near future. He had used his own father's murder in 1977 at the hands of the Syrians to help Mr Hariri rally considerable support in the early days of the movement.

But yesterday, Mr Jumblatt, who split from the March 14 alliance, only agreed to accompany Mr Hariri to pray at the grave of the prime minister's father, immediately departing the event before the political speeches began, marking the first major March 14 event to proceed without a bombastic speech by one of Lebanon's most colourful political figures. Although Hizbollah's website says a delegation of its political figures paid its respects to Hariri, they did so in private on Saturday, leaving yesterday's rally conspicuous for its narrow participation.

This was highlighted by the speakers' efforts to excite the crowd by calling out the names of Lebanese cities to the eruption of applause by people attending from those places. Sunni Muslim-dominated areas such as Akkar, Tripoli, and Sidon, Hariri's birthplace, were met by frantic cheers, but when the announcer called to hear from the people of Baalbek, a predominately Shiite and Hizbollah stronghold, a painful silence ensued. Embarrassed, the announcer tried again.

"Everyone from Ashrafiya?" he said, referring to the hard-right centre of Lebanese Christian life in Beirut, located just a few hundred metres away. Some people applauded. Others just bought small cups of coffee and cheese sandwiches from Syrian vendors.