By the end of the Lebanese civil war, Beirut was a mirror image of Grozny.
Fifteen years of civil war and two Israeli invasions left the country in a state of total anarchy. Proud middle class families were reduced to abject poverty. Such was the level of despair that desperate young men took to playing Russian roulette –” with real bullets.
Those who remember the Israeli siege of Beirut can hardly forget the sight of high rise buildings crumbling from constant air and ground bombardment. It was like watching a continuous replay of the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center. For two months in the summer of 1982, West Beirut was systematically reduced to rubble. Ariel Sharon polished off his terror campaign by staging a three-day massacre of Palestinian refugees. It took eighteen years before the Lebanese resistance forced the Israelis to end their vicious occupation of the South.
Fast forward to 2005 and behold the sight of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese –” Christians, Muslims and Druze – marching together in a funerary procession to bury Rafiq El Hariri. Because of the size of the crowd, it took hours to move the ex-Prime Minister’s remains from his family home in Krayton to the final burial place in the newly built Mohammed El Amin Mosque.
On my TV screen, I watched the multitudes slowly making their way through the streets of Beirut. The satellite channel’s helicopter hovered high above the procession to give viewers a better feel for the size of the procession. Having never been to Beirut, I only had a vague idea of what the city looked like. Naturally, I expected to see some display of the devastating scars of fifteen years of incessant war. Instead, the TV cameras revealed a panorama of a modern metropolis that had not only been rebuilt –” but constructed with Mediterranean flare. This was the city Rafiq El Hariri revived before being brutally assassinated by cold-blooded murderers who have yet to be identified.
When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Rafiq El Hariri was barely thirty years old – a young Lebanese immigrant running his own small construction company in Saudi Arabia. He was a self-made millionaire –” a son of the poor south – who had dropped out of college after running out of funds. He started life as school teacher and ended up as one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Through out the war years, Rafiq El Hariri spent a considerable portion of his personal wealth assisting his less fortunate countrymen. He began by building schools and hospitals in his native Sidon and setting up foundations to educate young Lebanese. At his personal expense, over thirty thousand students were given full scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies in universities all around the world. One thousand of Hariri’s kids went on to earn doctorates.
I met one of Hariri’s kids in Seattle –” a young woman who had earned her master’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University. She went on to work for Microsoft before heading home to Beirut to set up her own company. While Lebanese war lords and Israel war planes were tearing up the country –” Hariri was investing in the promise of a new generation.
The Israeli invasion of 1982 only intensified Hariri’s determination to do more for his country. He paid for relief supplies, rebuilt destroyed homes and paid allowances to tens of thousands of dislocated families.
By 1990, Rafiq El Hariri had become a Lebanese legend. His construction business in Saudi Arabia had become an international consortium. And his charitable work had made him a popular national hero in his native land. He leveraged his considerable influence, international connections and charisma to help hammer out the Taif agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war.
Once the hostilities were over, Rafiq El Hariri went home to pitch in and rebuild Beirut. Unlike Europe after the war, Lebanon did not have the luxury of a Marshall Plan to assist in reconstruction. In fact, the United States placed punitive sanctions on the country and continued to finance the Israeli occupation of the south.
Even so, American sanctions did nothing to slow down the Lebanese renaissance. Rafiq El Hariri staked his own personal fortune on Beirut. And the city rose from the ashes like a Phoenix. It didn’t take long for foreign and Arab investors to scramble back to Beirut to get a piece of the pie.
But the people of Beirut did not go out to mourn Rafiq because he was a philanthropist or a visionary real estate developer. El Hariri’s real gift to the Lebanese was that he restored their self-confidence and sold them a futuristic secular democratic vision where Sunnis, Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Shia, Druze and Armenians could abide and prosper together in a united Lebanon.
Unlike other Arab leaders, Rafiq El Hariri had a modest air about him. When the Lebanese elected him to be their Prime Minister, he did not prance about like an infallible emperor. In a recent interview, he freely confessed to having succumbed to conceit during his first year as Prime Minister. But he took a look in the mirror and changed course. In his own mind, he was just another son of Lebanon doing his bit to build a land where his kids and grand kids could live and thrive.
As Prime Minister, Rafiq never felt the need to bully the Lebanese into accepting his vision of a more prosperous and egalitarian future. Rather, he cajoled his people to heal the deep wounds of tribal strife and move on. He started out with a country that had lost its memory of peace and any hope of coexistence. Standing in the ashes of Beirut, he had enough optimism and charisma to overwhelm the deep cynicism that had come to plague the collective consciousness of a battered nation.
All Rafiq ever wanted was for Lebanon to be a normal country and Beirut to be a spectacular city. That was the simple vision that he sold to his fellow citizens. To their eternal credit, the Lebanese people demonstrated the will to rise above old tribal hatreds, build bridges and make Lebanon whole again –” one nation from the mountain the sea. Because of their courage and perseverance, Hariri went to his grave a content and grateful man.
Rafiq El Hariri was Lebanon’s supreme therapist –” a man with a silver tongue and a gentle style who used his considerable communication skills to convince all parties to lay down their arms, disband their militias and give peace and coexistence a chance. His legacy is a Lebanon that will survive his loss. He wanted a Lebanon that had no special need for an indispensable leader –” an independent and fully sovereign land that needed no oversight from Syria or America or France. And he leaves behind a confident Lebanon that has already demonstrated its ability to reward Israeli aggression with robust resistance.
Those Lebanese who want to honor Hariri’s legacy need to ask themselves what Rafiq would have done. He certainly wouldn’t have taken to the barricades or reverted to tribal warfare. More likely, Rafiq would have stubbornly pursued his dream to build a vibrant country that embraced all its children.
The murder of Rafiq El Hariri needs to be solved and soon –” if only to prove that the perpetrators are not Lebanese and do not deserve to be Lebanese. Chances are they were crass mercenaries, tribal irredentists or rogue Israeli, Syrian or Lebanese intelligence agents. We owe it to El Hariri and his family to bring them to justice and find out what they intended to achieve by killing a man who gave so much to Lebanon and had every intention of doing so much more.
The culprits could very well be Israelis. Ariel Sharon and his neo-con operatives have spared no effort to isolate the Syrians and undermine their national security. Israel has a track record of assassinating Palestinian and Lebanese leaders in broad daylight. In January of 2002, they executed Elie Hobieka –” only a few days before he was scheduled to travel to Belgium to provide incriminating testimony against Ariel Sharon for his war crimes at Sabra and Shatila. The assassination of Hobieka was a very sophisticated operation that was executed by Israeli operatives on very short notice.
Then again, it could be rogue Syrian intelligence agents who have profited handsomely from their illicit operations in Lebanon. It might even be freelancers from the Lebanese security forces that felt threatened by the possibility of losing the protection of their Syrian patrons. The recent attempted assassination of Marwan Hamada, a vocal opponent of the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese soil, would give credence to this scenario.
George Bush should be commended for responding to this abominable crime by demanding an immediate Syrian withdraw from Lebanon. It is an excellent and sound proposal –” something the vast majority of Lebanese will welcome. He can set a good example by setting a date certain for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. If he really wants to teach the Syrians a lesson, he can insist on a simultaneous Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. And just to demonstrate his sincerity, George can ask his father to apologize on behalf of Al Haig for giving a green light to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He might even have the decency to offer compensation to the tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian victims and pick up the tab for the reconstruction of Beirut and South Lebanon. The United States can help bring prosperity to the Lebanese by reducing the foreign debt the country incurred to rebuild what the Israelis have systematically destroyed.
Paying a little attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would also go a long way to dismissing cynicism in the region about hidden American agendas. Offering iron clad security guarantees to protect Lebanon’s southern borders against another Israeli invasion would reduce much of the friction in domestic Lebanese politics. And should the president be inclined to indulge in a little transparency –” he can begin by publicly admitting that the United States gave a green light to Syria’s intervention in Lebanon in 1976.
If Bush is to be taken seriously, he must start by replacing some of his Likudnik neo-con advisers with capable and talented Lebanese-Americans. No other country in the Arab Middle East has stronger historical links to the United States. Lebanon is secular, multi-cultural and has long embraced modernity. Few people are as comfortable as the Lebanese with a free market economy and open trade. No one should doubt that this generation of Lebanese has willingly and eagerly embraced democratic values. Unlike Israel, Lebanon does not dole out preferential treatment based on a citizen’s faith tradition. Beirut has already given valuable lessons to both the Middle East and the West on how best to avoid a clash of civilizations.
Of course, it is highly unlikely that Bush will follow a rational prescription for promoting peace in the region. He is tied at the hips to the Likudnik neo-con ideologues that infest the upper ranks at the State Department and the Pentagon. Before he makes a foreign policy decision, Bush first consults Natan Sharansky – a right wing Israeli extremist who has long championed the Israeli settler movement.
If the Lebanese feel the need for foreign intervention to resolve their problems with Syria –” they are well advised to seek out the assistance of France. Sharon’s neo-con goons and the Israeli Lobby have effectively hijacked the foreign policy apparatus of the American government. In France, both Lebanon and Syria will find a credible partner and intermediary that is not a slave to Likudnik intrigue. Rafiq Hariri understood these realities and one hopes that Damascus also understands that Chirac will act in the best interest of both the Lebanese and Syrian people.
One final irritant needs to be mentioned. When Bush sent Ambassador Burns to Beirut to offer condolences to the Al Hariri family –” he should have sent along a little etiquette book on how to conduct yourself at a funeral. Burns immediately took to the mike to give a neo-con lecture on the ‘Bush/Sharansky’ doctrine and insist on a selective enforcement of UN resolutions. If Burns wants to see how such matters are properly handled –” he should pay attention to President Chirac who showed up in person along with his wife to comfort the family. He later went to the graveside to pay his last respects. The French President, who was a family friend of the Hariris, had already called for an international investigation of the crime. He did so in France, before attending the funeral. Burns should learn some manners, get another job or sign up for etiquette lessons in Paris or Beirut.