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Profile: Rafik Hariri of Lebanon

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-02-20

When he resigned as Lebanon's prime minister on October 20 last year in protest against Syria's continued meddling in the internal affairs of his country, Rafik Hariri almost certainly signed his own death warrant.

The resignation was prompted by the Syrian-engineered amendment of the Lebanese constitution in order to give its puppet, President Emil Lahoud, an extension of his six-year term. Mr. Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, and Mr. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, had never liked each each; they wouldn't even talk to each other at Cabinet meetings. When this reporter asked Mr. Hariri some months ago in Beirut about the president's weekly car trips to the Syrian capital of Damascus -- which is barely an hour away from Beirut via a road that climbs through spectacular snow-capped mountains -- the billionaire-politician rolled his eyes. A close aide said that she thought her boss thought that Mr. Lahoud was a "lapdog" of President Basher Al-Assad of Syria.

Lapdogs tend to be indulged by their masters, and when Mr. Lahoud asked Mr. Assad to bless his efforts to stay on in office -- even though, constitutionally at least, a Lebanese president can only serve one six-year term -- it was simply too much for Mr. Hariri.

No one in Lebanon -- not a politician as powerful as Mr. Hariri, not the Shia speaker of parliament, Nabih Berry, not even the terrorist Hizbollah organization operating mainly out of southern Lebanon -- is in any position to block the directives issued by Damascus. That Mr. Lahoud should get a three-year extension was an order that came from Mr. Assad himself.

It would be unkind, now that Mr. Hariri is dead from a powerful bomb that ripped through his motorcade in Beirut yesterday, to suggest that he had it coming to him. He was too canny a politician not to known that his days were numbered.

The signs were all there. Just a few days ago, a Palestinian terrorist, Abul Aynayn -- against whom Mr. Hariri's administration had obtained a death sentence -- was openly escorted by Lebanese soldiers from a refugee camp south of Beirut, driven to Damascus for dinner with Mr. Assad, and then brought back to his abode not far from Beirut International Airport. In addition to his anti-Israeli activities, Mr. Aynayn has also been linked to the Islamic jihadists who claimed responsibility yesterday for killing Mr. Hariri.

Almost since the day he resigned, Mr. Hariri and other prominent Lebanese politicians -- including the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt -- started receiving death sentences. The 12 Hizbollah members of Lebanon's 128-member parliament began openly questioning Mr. Hariri's patriotism. Signs appeared all over Beirut accusing him of being an Israeli agent.

An Israeli agent Mr. Hariri most certainly was not. But neither was he an Israel hater in the manner of many politicians in his country of 4 million. And no one ever accused him of being a Jew-baiter, a designation that can be liberally applied to many members of Lebanon's elite -- Christians, Sunnis and Shias alike. Indeed, in an interview about two years ago at his palatial six-storey home in the fashionable Qraytem neighborhood -- not far from the American University of Beirut's sprawling cypress-lined campus -- Mr. Hariri told this reporter that he envied Israel's economic development in the face of adversity.

That was an unusual thing for him to have said, especially because Lebanon continues to be officially in a state of war with Israel. Could Mr. Hariri have been wishing that his behemoth construction company, the Oger Group, was somehow able to land lucrative contracts in Israel? He may have been a politician by vocation, but he was a money-maker by profession. His wealth through construction contracts was put by Forbes magazines at more than $4 billion, making him one of the wealthiest individuals in the Middle East.

Mr. Hariri would never have been able to obtain building contracts in Israel. His benefactors in Saudi Arabia -- where he initially made his billions -- and his political masters in Syria would have put paid to those ambitions, even assuming he harbored them. But it's debatable whether ordinary Lebanese would have much cared had Mr. Hariri made commercial forays into Israel; after all, his Hariri Foundation paid for the university education of more than 30,000 Lebanese men and women in the last 15 years since the Saudis brokered an end to the country's 15-year civil war. With an unemployment rate of 35% among Lebanon's youth -- more than 75% of the country is under 25 years of age -- economic opportunity, not tired political shibboleths, is what everyday Lebanese want, notwithstanding the anti-Semitic tirades of some of their leaders.

The promise of such economic opportunity was precisely what Mr. Hariri raised when he launched his political grouping, the Future Movement, not long after resigning. He pointed to his seminal role in rebuilding much of downtown Beirut, which was devastated during the civil war. He talked about the jobs that such construction generated. He was establishing traction; the movement was gaining momentum. And the puppeteers in Damascus and their marionettes in Beirut were clearly getting alarmed. After all, national elections have been scheduled for April, and Mr. Hariri would almost certainly have been returned to power.

That, of course, is not going happen, now that he's gone. Mr. hariri's successor as prime minister, Omar Karami, is going to have to deal with the Hariri legend -- and, perhaps even more troubling for him, the sad reality of an increasingly fractious and economically disintegrating Lebanon whose daily governance is conducted not from the presidential palace in Beirut's Baabda district but from Bashar Assad's home in the shadow of the American Embassy in Damascus.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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