STOREFRONT windows, buildings, billboards raised high above the streets of Beirut, all plastered with images of the man, Rafiq Hariri, whose Valentine’s Day murder would catapult Lebanon onto center stage, with the world watching in awe and sadness. Tents assembled in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut maintained a continuous reminder of what would become Hariri’s posthumous legacy-the rise of an unprecedented pro-democracy movement in Lebanon, leading to the full withdrawal of Syrian troops after three decades of occupation. Massive popular rallies in which Hariri’s name was chanted through the crowds gave rise to the question of just who this man was, whose death would spark a “cedar revolution” that would have far-reaching implications for the future of the region ?
Rafiq Hariri was that incredibly rare kind of Arab politician, one of the few who was liked, if not adored, by so many of his countrymen. With his brutal assassination, we witnessed, yet again, a visionary figure cut down by the scourge of terror. And the world was left to wonder what Hariri would have done for his country in the critical years ahead.
In a region normally defined by apathy and hopelessness, Hariri’s rise from the poor son of a grocer to selfmade billionaire, was an inspiration, a success story: the stuff of which films are made. Forced to drop out of Beirut Arab University due to lack of funds, the young Hariri made his way to Saudi Arabia. Working first as a teacher and then for a building firm, Hariri eventually started his own construction company. He gained the utmost confidence of the Saudi monarchy after building a high-priced hotel for the late Saudi Ring Khaled in just six months, in time for an Islamic summit
Building a business empire that would encompass banking, real-estate, telecommunications and construction, Hariri amassed a fortune that placed him on the list of the world’s 100 richest men. In addition, his close ties with the Saudi Royal family sparked his entrance into Lebanese politics when he was assigned the post of special emissary to Lebanon. It was in this role that he would first make his mark, participating in tine Taif Accords, which ended the civil war. In 1992, Hariri began his first term as prime minister and launched an ambitious bid to rebuild war-shattered Beirut.
After more than 15 years of bloodshed, die country lay covered in debris and downtown Beirut sat in ruins, a tragic symbol of die lost fortunes of die Lebanese. Hariri’s admirers credit him with single-handedly carrying die country out of die ashes of war and into an era of renewed rebuilding and growm. Using funds from his own immense fortune to clear rubble from me streets, Hariri’s efforts would help restore die capital city to its former glory, transforming downtown Beirut into a trendy, upscale tourist venue and returning Lebanon to its its former role as financial center of die Arab world. His detractors, however, accuse him of filling his pockets along die way and plunging the country into enormous debt with his elaborate and costly reconstruction efforts.
Rafiq Hariri was also well-known for his extensive philanthropic projects. To name only one notable example, the Hariri Foundation bankrolled die college educations of more man 30,000 Lebanese.
Hariri, tiiroughout his political career, had maintained a cordial, if at times tense, relationship with his country’s Syrian masters. Yet, after Syria forced an extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term, Hariri quit in apparent protest. In the months before his death, Hariri had quiedy sided with die burgeoning antiSyrian opposition and planned for a comeback in the May 2005 elections. He had been promoting a new movement called Al-Mustaqbal, or “The Future”.
Like so many before him in a country with a penchant for high-profile assassinations, Hariri fell victim to a car bomb as his entourage of bodyguards and limousines wound past die lakefront property of die Corniche near downtown Beirut, an exclusive area that Hariri did so much to revive. For die Lebanese people, images of civil war still fresh in their minds, die murder of such an influential figure seemed poised to rekindle sectarian divisions. Yet, this time would prove different, as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese chose to express their aspirations themselves through peaceful, mass demonstrations. According to police estimates, close to 1 million protestors participated in the landmark antiSyrian protest of March 14th, an amazing feat in a country of only 4 million people.
For all he did for Lebanon, Hariri will be remembered most for what he accomplished in deatii, serving as a symbol of freedom for his Lebanese compatriots, in their struggle for self-determination.