Eight years later, is it time to mourn Hariri’s dream of a better Lebanon?

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Eight years ago today, a car bomb took the life of Former Lebanese Premier Rafic Hariri. Eight years on, Lebanon is still dealing with the after-effects of the Sunni leader’s assassination.

A divisive figure in Lebanese politics, Hariri grew to prominence in the country after the civil war. He held the position of prime minister from 1992 to 1998 and again from 2000 to 2004, heading a total of five different cabinets.

Renowned for his successful reconstruction efforts, albeit tainted by critics accusing him of corruption, Lebanon enjoyed a sparkling revival which lasted until 2005 and witnessed a boom in several industries, most notably tourism – the country’s main revenue source – as well as banking.

Ever since his assassination on February 14 2005, Lebanon has been experiencing a severely turbulent political scene. This has taken its toll on the nation’s stability, security and prosperity.

Remembering ‘ Mr. Lebanon’
Hariri (later dubbed ‘Mr. Lebanon’) was born in Sidon, Lebanon in 1944 to a poor Sunni Muslim family. After studying at Beirut Arab University he traveled to Saudi Arabia, following many countrymen, to try and better himself economically. He found work in a construction firm and later established his own called Saudi Oger. Hariri would become the personal contractor for the future king of Saudi Arabia, Prince Fahd. Hariri’s relationship with Fahd led to him acquire extreme wealth.

Hariri later acted as an intermediary between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and played a role in bringing various warring factions together to agree on the Taif Accord in 1989.

While detractors remember him as a figure head for corruption and the of driving up of national debt, Hariri is widely credited for rebuilding areas in Beirut following a destructive civil war and reinvigorating it as a tourist hotspot. Supporters of Hariri remember him as a national leader who reached across sectarian lines to help Christians as well as Muslims, he is also remembered for his philanthropy.

Hariri was a different leader in Lebanon because he didn’t play an active role in the civil war, while many other leaders had.

While Hariri had a close relationship with the Syrian regime during most of his tenure, he resigned in 2004 over a dispute with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad wanted to extend Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s time in office while Hariri disagreed. Assad responded by telling Hariri, “I will crush anyone who opposes our decisions.”

Spate of killings

A year after his resignation on February 14, 2004, Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb near in Beirut’s Ain al-Mraisse area. Hariri’s death had a profound effect on the Lebanese people. The assassination of a national leader led the Lebanese to rally against the Syrian Army’s presence in their country. The event that ended the 30 year Syrian occupation of Lebanon became known as “The Cedar Revolution.”

The snowball effect of the withdrawal led to the forced resignation of President Lahoud, widely regarded as a figure of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Yet, while the events that Hariri’s death triggered led to widespread optimism in the short term, much has gone wrong in Lebanon since.

According to Dr. Sami Nader, a professor at Lebanon’s Saint Joseph University, “Rafic Hariri constituted an international safety network that prevented Lebanon’s fall into the Syrian-Iranian axis. He established a balance of power. After his killing there were two phases. First the balance tilted against the Syrian-Iranian axis with the cedar revolution and victory for March 14.”

“In the second phase Syria managed a comeback and gained total hegemony over Lebanon,” he added.

Hariri’s death was just the start of a number of bombs that went off around Lebanon, killing a number of other important national figures and innocent bystanders. In 2005 alone, Hariri’s assassination was followed by bombings in New Jdeideh, Kaslik, Sad al-Bouchrieh, Broummana, Jounieh, Monot, Zalka and Geitawi. Other bombings took the lives of journalists Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni and former Communist party leader George Hawi. Failed attempts targeted journalists May Chidiac and Ali Ramez Tohme and then Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr.

In 2006 it was the turn of then-Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel, son of former President Amin Gemayel, who was shot dead. The following year lawmakers Walid Eido and Antoine Ghanem were killed in separate incidents as was Brigadier General Francois Elias Hajj. The plethora of assassinations led to the formation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, an international criminal tribunal whose mandate is to hold trials for those accused of killing Hariri and other national figures. The STL was supposed to make the killings stop.

However in 2008 a senior terrorism investigator for the Internal Security Forces named Wissam Eid was killed as was lawmaker Saleh Aridi. Two bombs also went off in Tripoli.

As the STL began picking up pace, the killings began to fade, only to be thrust back into the limelight in October 2012 when Wissam al Hassan, head of the information branch of the ISF, was killed by a bomb in Beirut's Ashrafieh neighborhood. Hassan, considered a controversial character for his weak alibi on the day Hariri was killed, was a trustee of both Hariri senior and Saad. Hassan’s death resulted in the Sunni community of Tarik Jdeideh taking out their frustration on the army with a couple days of clashes.

Lebanon on fire

Throughout the period rife with assassinations following Hariri’s death, the 2006 July War between Hezbollah and Israel tore apart much of Beirut and the south of Lebanon’s infrastructure. Two years later, a government decision to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunication network led to clashes in West Beirut between supporters of the Future Movement (Hariri’s party, taken over by his son Saad) and Hezbollah affiliated fighters. Clashes occurred in other parts of Lebanon including the Chouf region and Tripoli.

The conflict led to deep resentment from mainly the Sunni Muslim community in Lebanon toward the mainly Shiite Hezbollah. This resentment has continued to today and is cited as a large reason for the emergence of figures like Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a firebrand Sunni cleric from Hariri’s hometown Sidon.

Following Hariri’s death, his mantle as leader of the Sunni sect was passed to his second eldest son Saad, a business man who had been plying his trade in Saudi Arabia. But Saad Hariri did not command the same influence his father had. The younger Hariri was appointed to the position of Prime Minister in late 2009 but his reign didn’t last long as in January of 2011 the Lebanese opposition withdrew their members of cabinet. Saad fled the country soon after and has yet to return.

Lebanon has been teetering since Saad’s departure. The war in Syria next door has put increasing pressure on the nation’s stability with the Sunni community in particular making no secret of their support for the opposition. The situation began to boil last May when Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahed was killed at an army checkpoint in Akkar on his way to a protest for jailed Islamists. Clashes across Beirut and demonstrations nationwide ensued as tensions continued to simmer for a few months. All the while clashes have been on and off in the impoverished Tripoli neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

The absence of a strong Sunni figure since the death of the elder Hariri resonates. Other Sunni leaders haven’t fitted the bill. Saad has shown himself to not be as cunning a politician as his father. Fuad Siniora, the man who succeeded Rafic as prime minister, has had to take a back seat to Saad.

Najib Mikati, current prime minister, has his support mainly in his hometown of Tripoli and is viewed by Hariri’s party, as well as certain parts of the Sunni population, as leading a Hezbollah-dominated government. In the last year, Saad Hariri’s support has waned in the Sunni community as his absence has led many to look to others for leadership. Local Sunni leaders like Assir and a number of clerics in Tripoli are receiving more support than before. The Sunni community is divided to say the least.

Dr. Bassem Shabb, a Lebanese MP representing Hariri’s Future Movement in Beirut, summarizes the past eight years as follows:

“The good that came out of Hariri’s assassination was that it liberated Lebanon from the Syrian regime. Lebanon is now independent. Even those opposed to Hariri cannot claim otherwise.”

However, he elaborates adding that “the bad was that Hariri propelled country economically and financially. Lebanon really suffered under this and other governments. It turned Lebanon from a pro-West direction toward Syria and Iran and now we are paying the price.”

“Without Hariri’s influence. We’ve moved in the opposite direction. We’ve never seen such economic decline,” he concludes.

In a recent interview with Al Arabiya, current Lebanese PM Najib Makit admits that the situation in Lebanon isn’t at its best.

With the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the spill-over effect of the crisis in neighboring Syria, Mikati argued that any country in the geographical situation of Lebanon would have suffered.

However, Mikati still seemed optimistic by stating that Lebanon’s estimated debt of $56 million is “manageable” and elaborated that despite all odds, the nation’s economy still achieved close to 2 percent in real growth.

Eight years ago, the death of Hariri inspired a movement filled with hope, optimism and encouraging unity. Eight years on though, the Lebanese (or a large number of them) seem to be losing hope, the optimism has given way to frustration and the Sunni population is still looking for a leader to fill the void.