The assassination of Rafik Hariri: Lebanon's Shakespearean tragedy

Hariri, a clumsy, self-made billionaire and former premier, has in death become the symbol of Lebanese defiance.

On Valentine's Day, 2005, business tycoon and former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri met a fiery death when his motorcade was engulfed in flames as it drove along the picturesque Beirut seafront. In Killing Mr. Lebanon, Nicholas Blanford, Lebanon correspondent for The Times (of London) and this newspaper, investigates the fatal blast and its political ramifications.

The affable Mr. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician and successful entrepreneur, was a beloved figure whose death galvanized Lebanese opposition to Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Because "Syria's rulers never accepted the notion of an independent Lebanon," and the Syrian regime suspected Hariri of colluding with its Lebanese opponents, Syria came to figure prominently in virtually all theories about Hariri's assassination.

"Killing Mr. Lebanon" does not resolve that mystery. Though Mr. Blanford airs the suspicions of many that the Syrian regime was responsible, he does not theorize as to the culprits' identity. And in many respects, it is still too early for any definitive account of Hariri's assassination, as the fallout of the killing continues to jolt the region.

Blanford had to end his account somewhere, and he chose the first anniversary of Hariri's murder. Of course, the assassination itself receives its share of attention; the play-by-play account of the explosion brims with luridly cinematic detail. But of far greater import (given that Blanford doesn't offer anything significant about the assassination not contained in the UN investigative reports) is the discussion of the behind-the-scenes machinations preceding Feb. 14 in both Syria and Lebanon.

Blanford's insights into the secretive, mercurial Syrian regime are intriguing. Contrary to expectation, Bashar al-Assad's rise to power created a more sectarian atmosphere among the ruling clique than had been the case under his father, Hafez.

The Syrian Baath Party has always been based on a nucleus of loyal Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect accounting for 11 to 15 percent of Syria's population and historically oppressed by the Sunni Muslim majority. Under Mr. Assad, the Baath regime has apparently further cemented its Alawite character. Hariri, a Sunni, was seen by the paranoid Assad and his acolytes as a threat not only to their control of Lebanon, but to Syria itself, where a Sunni majority chafes under minority Alawite rule.

Yet Blanford resists the temptation to depict Hariri as a saint, pointing out that "the trademark of the Hariri [prime ministerial] era was the domineering manner in which he ran the country as if it was an extension of his personal business empire." Overall, the self-made billionaire emerges as a clumsy arriviste with an obdurate yet sincere belief in the redemptive power of money. Hariri honestly thought that he could mollify even his most implacable foes with his checkbook, failing to grasp that some who benefitted from his largess would also sabotage his plans.

According to Blanford, Hariri worked hard to accommodate Syria's demands, and never openly confronted his powerful neighbor. The author gently reveals the irony of Hariri's posthumous role as the father of Lebanon's newfound independence, pointing out that "Hariri had always wanted to be Syria's friend and ally, and was even willing to accept a limited Syrian troop presence in eastern Lebanon. Yet his murder had transformed him into the figurehead of the anti-Syrian struggle and the catalyst that had led to [Syria's] withdrawal."

Try as he might to allay Syrian fears, Hariri was rebuffed at every turn. A severely blinkered Assad became convinced that the former Lebanese premier had enlisted the aid of the Americans and the French to eject Syria from Lebanon.

The situation had all the makings of "a Shakespearean tragedy of misunderstanding." In this Lebanese variation on one of the Bard's favorite themes, there are countless roles for players both major and minor. Blanford used his web of contacts to conduct more than 70 interviews, in the process crafting a complex and variegated story.

One of Hariri's great accomplishments was "to restore Beirut as the financial and services entrepôt of the Middle East." Sadly, today, with the Lebanese divided over Hizbullah's weapons, relations with Syria, and their country's very identity, it is uncertain that Lebanon can retain this much-coveted role.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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