Hariri remembered

Massoud A. Derhally visits Beirut exactly a year after the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, to find out if the city, its people and politics have really changed.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  February 19, 2006

|~|hariri-protest-200.jpg|~|PROTEST: Thosands of Lebanese take to the streets of Beirut on the anniversary of the death of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.|~|On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, loudspeakers at the Al Riyadi Sports Club on the Rouche seafront in Beirut were blasting out songs eulogising the former Lebanese prime minister. A large, six metre picture of Hariri and Saad, his son and political heir, adorned the front of the sports club. The past year has been an eventful one, as well as a tumultuous one. Under mounting international pressure after an unprecedented show of unity by Lebanese in what some called the Beirut Spring or the Cedar Revolution, Syria withdrew its troops from the country on April 26 last year. It had entered Lebanon in 1976, to stop what later became a 15 year civil war. But its soldiers had overstayed their welcome and become an icon of a brutal and resented occupation that had plundered and pillaged the country economically and politically. The exodus of Syrian troops brought respite to the one million Lebanese that had converged on the centre of Beirut on March 14, blaming Syria for the killing of Hariri and 22 others a month earlier in a huge explosion. But what looked like a momentous opportunity for change, where people appeared to be ready to shun the confessionalism that has defined the fabric of the country and dominated its political landscape, would lose its lustre come parliamentary elections in May and June. The march for freedom had hardly ended before the horse trading began in the run up to parliamentary elections — when despite Syria’s absence, Lebanese politicians found it difficult to shed their political masks and break with the confessional system that characterises the political landscape of the country. As a result of the political posturing, the enthusiasm that had come to the fore when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand that Syria leave their country, for democracy to take root in their country, to have national unity among the 18 communities of various confessions and for violence to be shunned, had waned. As the Syrians withdrew, the euphoria that gripped the country slowly dispersed. Lebanon’s intricate history of confessionalism once again became a dominant force that essentially shaped the context in which the upcoming elections would take place. Lebanon is a complicated, multi-layered country with many faiths, sects and ethnicities. But by the same token, it is this rich melting pot that makes the country so fragile. It was, therefore, only natural that all the various political figures that have a stake in Lebanon began to jostle in the run up to the parliamentary elections — and that the political posturing set in and alliances began to take form. General Michel Aoun, the staunch anti-Syrian commander who had fought against the Syrians and Palestinians in Lebanon, was initially welcomed with open arms by the Lebanese opposition. However, they later fell out because he couldn’t secure enough seats in parliament, and he is now a thorn in the side of the ‘March 14 movement'. And there's no turning back. Aoun’s inability to forge electoral alliances with the opposition, largely due to a disagreement on seat allocation in the constituency of Mount Lebanon with Druze MP Walid Jumblatt, led the 70-year-old former army general to ironically team up with pro-Syrian contenders. The general allied himself with Talal Arslan, a principal rival of Jumblatt and also with Michel Murr, who had a monopoly over the portfolio of the Interior Ministry. More ironic still was Aoun's understanding with the Shiite movement Hezbollah earlier this month, to counter Jumblatt, Saad Hariri and the Christian Lebanese Forces, headed by Samir Geagea. Saad Hariri, the son of the former premier, whose pictures are now plastered all over the walls of Beirut along with his father, cooked up a shrewd strategy as he set out to make his own alliances in the elections. The 35-year-old businessman, who has taken over the mantle of his father but has little political experience, aligned himself with Jumblatt and various other personalities to consolidate his constituency. He claimed a clean sweep of the elections in Beirut, although his succes has since been attributed to sympathy voting and the decision of most of his political rivals not to contest the available seats. But since the elections last June, much has happened in Lebanon, and a good deal hasn’t. As well as an international UN investigation that culminated in two reports implicating Syria in the assassination of Hariri; and the imprisonment of four senior figures in the Lebanese security apparatus that were complicit with the Syrian era of tutelage over Lebanon; a number of political assassinations have taken place. Prominent journalist Samir Kassir, a vehement anti-Syrian critic, was killed in June. The head of the communist party, George Hawi was then assassinated. May Chidiac, an anchor with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation television station, was targeted, and prominent journalist Gebran Tueni, who had vigorously opposed Syria’s hold on Lebanon, was assassinated last December. It is therefore understandable that there is a sense of anxiety that still hovers over Lebanon one year on from Hariri's killing. As a result of the unabated political assassinations and a series of bombings that have targeted Christian neighbourhoods over the past 12 months, there is a widespread security presence across the city. Attendants at parking lots monitor cars for bombs, electronic cameras photograph cars, and prime minister Fouad Siniora refrains from going home every day, choosing instead to sleep in the prime ministry known as the sarrai. A walk out by five Shiite members of the Hezbollah and Amal Shiite movements from the majority anti-Syrian parliament has also led to a political gridlock that has lasted for two months. The cracks in the alliances that were forged in the parliamentary elections have widened as some MPs want Hezbollah to disarm and integrate itself into the Lebanese army, in addition to widening calls for an international tribunal to look into the deaths of Hariri and other figures that were assassinated. The political crisis only subsided after Siniora said in parliament that Hezbollah would only be called by the name it has always been called by, the resistance. Many Lebanese feel the clash of interests with Hezbollah is because of the anti-Syrian government, which has a majority in parliament but, some think, has behaved like a minority and appeased the Shiite organisation without getting anything in return. “The pro-Syria alliance, however hazy it is, is trying to dictate an agenda through the president and the speaker of the parliament," explains Chibli Mallat, a prominent lawyer. “The Syrians are physically out but they still retain two positions. Aoun and Hezbollah play as if they are a majority and dictate the agenda. Parliament should take the initiative and vote for a new president.” Fayez, a 53-year civil engineer that shuttles between Beirut and Cambridge in England, believes the birth of a nation requires painful decisions and that the incumbent government should have been tougher in parliament. “You pay with your blood to get democracy, the US had its civil war. You had Oliver Cromwell who got rid of the king in England and that was a turning point of the country becoming a constitutional monarchy,” he says. “You have to be pragmatic. Jumblatt broke with Hezbollah because Syria is implicated in Hariri’s killing. Hezbollah needs Syrian and Iranian support but it can’t expect a majority in parliament to stay quiet. Which Lebanon does it want?” He continued: “All of Hezbollah and Amal’s statements are pro-Syrian while you have had 14 government officials or politicians assassinated in the past year. A great man says the truth and that’s what the American president Lincoln did in fighting his brothers in the South during the US civil war and Nasrallah will never unite Lebanon.” Though the crisis in parliament was diffused, Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah and former general Michel Aoun who heads the Free Patriotic Movement surprised everyone later when they entered into an alliance to counter Saad Hariri and his allies that include Walid Jumblatt. Aoun had been adamantly anti-Syrian during the 15-year civil war in which he fought a “war of liberation” in the last days against the Syrians. And now after having returned from exile, the former army general that prides himself on wanting to implement a social, economic and political programme, which he claims is unparalleled by anything any of the other politicians have to offer, enters into an alliance with Hezbollah, a group that is backed by the Syrians and the Iranians. Rana Ballout, a 31-year-old secular Shiite who says she would never vote for Hezbollah because she disagrees with a lot of what they stand for, believes there is a new dynamic on the ground in this new alliance that could bring about change. “I would never vote for Hezbollah because I don’t agree with their social codes. But whether one likes it or not, Hezbollah is the strongest. The alliance with Aoun is going to shift things dramatically. They had to form the alliance to counter and isolate Walid Jumblatt and Lebanese Forces. “A lot of people lost heart when the politics started. But this is a chance for the Lebanese to face their demons. Taif was a reconciliation of the warlords not of the people. Taif sold the country to the Syrians under the auspices of the Americans.” Ballout says people seem to forget that Hariri and the leaders that presently make up the anti-Syrian camp worked with the Syrians during the era of tutelage. “They all benefited from the last 15 years …how much did these people make out of this consensual agreement? These four generals that are in jail now, I don’t want them in jail because of being implicated in Hariri’s killing but because they aided and abetted in the Syrian oppression.” Ali Fadlallah, a 32-year-old Shiite a relative of Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Shiite spiritual leader Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah that the Israelis tried to kill, somewhat agrees with Ballout but also believes the country cannot extricate itself from a system of consensus to one where decisions are shaped by majority rule. “People who were warlords should not be politicians. All they did was take off their military garb and put on a suit after the war ended. Nobody represents what I believe and that’s why I didn’t vote in the last elections. I would like to see a secular state when all religious and secular groups are treated equally. You don’t get that here so I don’t bother,” he explains. “I’m happy the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance happened. Both are very nationalistic. Hezbollah and Aoun make up the majority of the population but you cannot leave out the Sunnis and the Druze. This country cannot live just on the majority.” Misbah Ahdab, a member of parliament, believes Hezbollah has no choice but to lay down its arms eventually and assimilate. “We need to know there is a will from Hezbollah that it will transform to become part of the Lebanese state. You want to follow the Lebanese constitution then the majority means something. You cannot wait for those who disagree — we have a responsibility to the people,” says Ahdab. If any praise is to be afforded, Fayez, the engineer, believes it should go to the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who has been unwavering in his opposition to Syria and its supporters within Lebanon. “Walid Jumblatt was a brilliant politician during the Syrian withdrawal and he wants a united Lebanon without regional interference that destroys the country again. Events make a man. The message he is giving is that he wants a sovereign Lebanon. Whereas Aoun is a liar. “From the day he first arrived he said the March 14 movement started well before Hariri’s assassination, because of his efforts. He’s very ambiguous. He says ‘Syria is out so I no longer have any business with them.’ What about the Lebanese in Syrian prisons?” Zeina Halabi, a 30-year-old Christian, is disgusted by the political posturing. “I didn’t vote because none of these people were asked what they stood for and what they had to offer.”||**|||~||~||~|When he characterises Lebanon’s terrain, Ali Ballout, seasoned journalist and political commentator once targeted by the Syrians, likes to quote Riad El-Solh, Lebanon’s first prime minister, who said: “Lebanon is like a bird with two wings — one Christian, one Muslim — and a bird can’t fly with one wing.” In the midst of this electrified atmosphere, the country has also witnessed violence relating to the controversy of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Denmark. This led to a showdown in the Christian suburb of Achrafiyeh where the Danish Embassy was burnt and the Christian churches attacked. Parallels were drawn between this episode and the start of the civil war in 1975. “The recent demonstrations were a confluence of anger factors; instigation following on the tracks of Syrians allowing embassies to be burned and Islamists wanting to impose their own agenda,” explains Chibli Mallat, a prominent Lebanese lawyer, who announced his intention to run in the presidential elections. Mallat believes what helped prevent a bad situation from turning worse was the reluctance of the interior minister to issue orders to fire at the crowd. “The interior minister, the prime minister and the wisdom of those in Achrafiyeh not taking up weapons saved the day.” Fayez, the engineer, agrees. “Last Sunday was like an experiment and you have to make sure the variables don’t repeat themselves. It could have gone to civil strife but it was well contained by the Christians. Ignorant people and extremists hijacked religion and this country is still not out of danger. There is a power struggle,” he says. For many Lebanese, much of what has taken place in the past year typifies the politics of a country defined by the detritus of a treacherous civil war. The very warlords that had fought each other for so long had ended the conflict with Saudi mediation, culminating in the Taif agreement. But that agreement embodied the very fundamental element of confessionalism that divides the Lebanese more than it unifies them. And now a year since Hariri’s killing, the system was still being tested at the expense of the people. While the March 14 demonstration last year united a certain strata of the Lebanese population, the ominous and debilitating political impasse had marred the country for a year and taken its toll on the economy and society. As of end of December 2005, the debt stood at US$38.5 billion equivalent to 170% of the country’s GDP, according to Nassib Ghobril a Lebanese economist. “There was 0% growth in 2005 compared to 5-6% in 2004 and that was highest growth since 1997 driven by external demand and tourism,” says Ghobril. The political infighting has prevented any meaningful reforms from happening and reforms require political will. “Reforms in Lebanon have been diluted in order to reach political consensus. International organisations like the IMF and the World Bank are ready to help but want to see a program,” says Ghobril. “The country is not in growth mode and not in an ideal economic condition. We need a donor conference to happen soon. Right now we need this jolt. That will generate confidence in economy.” The fallout among the political leaders, illustrated by the elevation of rhetoric in the media, has confirmed to many around the country that things have not changed and essentially that secularism remains the Achilles heel of Lebanon. A week before the one-year anniversary of Hariri’s assassination, the country was in a visible state of limbo. In addition to the political bickering, Lebanese president Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian that Damascus had imposed on the Lebanese by forcing parliament to amend the constitution and extend his term in office by three years, remains a fundamental obstacle to any meaningful development in the country. “I think so long as president Lahoud is in power I consider that the movement of March 14 is not in control of authority because they have not been able to take control of the internal security apparatus or the judicial system and you can’t have authority without these,” says Giselle Khouri, the widow of prominent journalist Samir Kassir who was killed last June by a bomb in his car. “So long as Lahoud is at the head of the security system we can’t do anything. I think the journey to independence is a long one and we have paid a very very heavy price and we need to continue.” The calls for Lahoud to resign and step aside were be echoed loud and clear on February 14, 2006 when some one million Lebanese descended on martyrs square for the one year anniversary of Hariri’s killing. Many demonstrators had Lebanese flags painted on their faces. Others fashioned the flags as bandanas. Some of the demonstrators held the Quran in one hand and the cross in another as a pledge of unity. And in addition to the sea of white and red flags that painted the heart of Beirut there were placards that read: “Take out Bashar’s collaborator in Baabda,” in reference to the pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. Dressed in a white shirt with a picture of slain journalist Samir Kassir and a Lebanese flag in her hand, Asma Andraos, a 35 -year-old Christian activist that played a formidable role in civil society during the Lebanese intifada against the Syrians is hard hitting in her criticism of Lahoud. “Our executive power in Lebanon is split between our government and our president,” she says. “It is my belief and the belief of quite a few people that until the president resigns or is made to resign, because it seems like he doesn’t want to resign, we will keep on having a government that cannot govern. For the very simple reason he can block every single decision they take. He can block nominations; he can block laws and decisions. The president of Lebanon today represents for a lot of Lebanese people if not all, the old regime that was in Lebanon for years; that was a security-mafia authoritarian force and Emile Lahoud comes from that era. His mandate was prolonged by force. Deputies were threatened for him to stay in power. So long as he is here we are going to keep on having a blocked government,” adds Andraos, who was picked by Time magazine as one of the 37 heroes of 2005 who are “changing the world for the better.” The hatred of Lahoud was visible at the February 14 anniversary. As they marched towards the centre of Beirut to Martyrs Square, a hundred metres from Hariri’s grave, the Lebanese chanted anti-Lahoud and anti-Syrian slogans. The scene at the square was akin to that of a concert. In the middle lay the “Freedom Camp,” erected ironically by Syrian workers, where Lebanese politicians like Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea and former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel came to before making their way up to podium to deliver their speeches. “We came to tell you rulers of Damascus, you tyrants and your allies that we are not a passing minority or an imaginary majority…We came to say that if forgetting is impossible then forgiving is impossible and impossible and impossible. We are seeking revenge from Lahoud and Bashar. You rulers of Damascus you are the helpless slaves and we are the free men,” Jumblatt, an icon of the Lebanese uprising against the Syrians, said to cheering crowds. “We say to the terrorist tyrant Bashar Assad that the Lebanese are free men. We say to him he can take back his agent Emile Lahoud. Instead of liberating the Sheba Farms, let’s liberate the Baabda farm. There will be no sovereignty as long as the symbol of betrayal and submission to the Syrian regime remains in Baabda. We tell him, Bashar the terrorist brought you and the proud Lebanese people will remove you,” Jumblatt added. Jawad Boulos, a member of parliament, also lambasted Lahoud for standing in the way of the country’s future. “Lahoud is a lame duck president in a constitutional sense and he is now an obstacle to building institutions in a non-constitutional sense. He no longer represents the Christian community and is no longer able to partake in dialogue that is building up. He should resign and pave the way to a successor who is able to engage all Lebanese,” Boulos explains. Jumblatt’s wife, Noura echoes the sentiments of Saad Hariri who returned to the country after being abroad for six months because of security reasons. “We believe in Lebanon, first of all, before everything. This [day] proves one more time after March 14 that the Lebanese people are united. Yesterday I thought we had a long way to go. Today I am full of hope,” she says. Nayla Tueni, daughter of Gebran Tueini, the prominent publisher of the An Nahar daily who was killed last December after returning from Paris, believes the momentum of the Lebanese people was strong as ever. “It’s a great day. If my father were here it would be like March 14. Today the Lebanese proved that we are united and together for all those martyrs who gave their life for our country. My father is proud. I am sure he is proud. We have a long way to go. We have to be united to continue the dream of the martyrs,” says Tueni. When she went up to the podium to give her speech, Tueni recited the oath of her late father from a year ago that called on the Lebanese to pull together as one. “Today we came to renew our loyalty to Martyr Hariri and to repeat Gebran Tueni’s oath of unity and freedom: In the name of God, we, Muslims and Christians swear that to remain united till the end of time.” Saad Hariri launched a scathing attack on Syria and Lahoud. “My fellow countrymen, when Rafik Hariri wrote his last resignation letter, he said: ‘I confine this beloved country, Lebanon, and its good people to God.’ And when they killed Rafik Hariri exactly one year ago, Lebanon, the country which Rafik Hariri loved said, 'we refuse to say goodbye' and the Lebanese people stood to say that Rafik Hariri’s Lebanon will not leave us. Brothers and sisters, they left us a ‘deposit’ in Baabda, a deposit that goes back to the tutelage regime. We tell them: Remove the ‘deposit’ of your tutelage from Baabda. Remove the symbol of your tutelage from Baabda. Remove the embodiment of your oppression of Lebanon and the Lebanese people,” he added, in a clear swipe at Lebanese president Emile Lahoud. Boulos, the Member of Parliament believes the fundamental issues in the country remain the same. “The issues today are sovereignty, liberty, independence and freedom. These are the issues the Lebanese are fighting for…People here today represent a cross section of society and its very useful here to see what the people are saying and not just the politicians,” says Boulos. Andraos, the activist, believes the wide attendance of Lebanese is indicative that the will of the Lebanese had not faded. “I feel very very happy because we have proved our point, because we have sent out a message to those who thought that we were no longer hopeful. Happy because it is a clear way of saying we will not give up, however long it takes and until we are perfectly free and perfectly independent,” she says. Andraos concedes that what Lebanon needs is a national reconciliation initiative much like the one South Africa had after the era of Apartheid ended. “What we have done is pretty much played with amnesia and I think you cannot go very far when you go amnesiac. I think we have to at one point to actually sit down and say ‘yes we did kill each other. Yes we did fight a war for 15 years [and] no we don’t want to go back to that.” “For years we were not governing ourselves. It’s been a year since we’ve actually started working on our memory too and forgiving one another and accepting our differences and realising that this was our strength. Our salvation will come with time from the understanding that inevitably we have to live together and accept each other’s differences. But we have to all agree on one thing; a free independent country.”||**||

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