Behind Lebanon Upheaval, 2 Men's
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR - New York Times
Published: March 20, 2005
EIRUT, Lebanon, March 19 - On an unseasonably mild day last August, a
small group of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's closest political allies
could tell from his flushed face and subdued manner that something
awful had happened in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he had
been summoned to a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad.
The four men, all Lebanese Parliament members, recalled waiting for
him at the Beirut mansion of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, in the
so-called garden, basically a carport paved with concrete bricks,
plus one short orange tree in a faux terra cotta tub.
Mr. Hariri - wearing an expensive blue suit and a white shirt, his
tie loosened - lumbered over mutely and flung himself onto one of a
dozen white plastic chairs, his head lolling back and his arms
dangling over the edges.
After a few moments, he leaned forward and described how the Syrian
leader had threatened him, curtly ordering him to amend Lebanon's
Constitution to give President Émile Lahoud, the man Syria used to
block Mr. Hariri's every move, another three years in office.
"Bashar told him, 'Lahoud is me,' " Mr. Jumblatt recalled in an
interview. "Bashar told Hariri: 'If you and Chirac want me out of
Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.' " He was referring to the French
president, Jacques Chirac.
In the month since Mr. Hariri was assassinated, members of Lebanon's
anti-Syrian opposition have pointed to that Aug. 26 encounter in
Damascus as fateful. Although opposition leaders acknowledge that
they lack firm evidence tying Syria or its Lebanese agents directly
to Mr. Hariri's assassination, they link that day to his slaying on
"To tell you the truth, when I heard him telling us those words, I
knew that it was his condemnation of death," Mr. Jumblatt said.
It was after that meeting that Mr. Hariri, 60, a real estate tycoon
turned politician who had run Lebanon for the better part of 12
years, decided that he had to join the movement to uproot both the
Syrian Army and the ever more robust tentacles of its secret police
Interviews with a dozen Lebanese involved, including the three other
men at the garden and some of Mr. Hariri's closest aides, indicate
that in the final six months of his life he was tormented by the
predicament that Lebanon now faces - how to end Syria's headlock
without reigniting the civil war that tore this country apart a
Whether Mr. Hariri would have succeeded in his efforts cannot be
known. Nonetheless, President Assad's decision to force Mr. Lahoud
onto Lebanon again is now widely seen as an enormous political
blunder, uniting many Lebanese communities in opposition and even
managing to bringing together France and the United States in a
concerted effort to push Syria out. Although Syria denies involvement
in the assassination, Mr. Hariri's death eliminated the one man
potentially able to muster the international and domestic pressure to
force Damascus to release its grip.
For the moment, his killing has inspired that anyway. But the
lingering question is whether he can accomplish in death a goal that
eluded him while alive: keeping the notoriously bickering opposition
united for long enough to see free elections and the end of Syrian
"What they are really missing is a leader, that is the key problem,
someone to show them the way," said Timur Goksel, a longtime United
Nations spokesman here who now teaches at the American University of
Beirut. "That is a real void."
Orders from Damascus
Syria is used to acting with impunity in Lebanon.
But by 2004, the Lebanese were expecting something different from Mr.
Assad, not least because the United States had signaled by invading
Iraq that business as usual was unacceptable.
The 39-year-old Syrian leader seemed to have gotten the message,
telling a Kuwaiti newspaper early last summer that Damascus would not
interfere in Lebanon's presidential election in the fall. Months
later, Mr. Hariri was ordered to Damascus for the ominous meeting.
Mr. Assad advertised the fact that the meeting was remarkably short -
15 minutes in a country where most presidential encounters drag on
for hours - to make it clear that Syria was issuing an order.
The Lebanese around Mr. Hariri were both appalled and exhilarated
that the Syrians obviously failed to grasp the consequences of what
was immediately condemned as a maladroit act.
We knew Bashar had made a fatal error," said a close political
adviser to Mr. Hariri, who, like several other people interviewed,
asked not to be identified given the current tension and fear of
reprisals in Lebanon. "Hariri said that we are all just gnats to
them, he kept repeating that until his death."
The Americans and the French, alienated since Paris opposed the war
in Iraq, reacted with rare simultaneous anger over Syria's move.
Quietly urged on by Mr. Hariri, they pushed through Security Council
Resolution 1559, which demanded a Syrian withdrawal and the disarming
of Hezbollah. The Syrians were furious at what they took to be solely
Mr. Hariri's handiwork.
The strain showed. Mr. Hariri, a burly, gregarious man who loved to
make puns, became quiet and introspective. A friend since childhood
said that at one point the prime minister put his hand on the
friend's shoulder and wept, something he'd never done before.
The Syrians, acknowledging that Mr. Hariri might be able to defuse
the gathering international storm, asked the prime minister to form a
new government. Mr. Hariri started drawing up lists of potential
ministers, but most were rejected by Damascus.
"He was like a boxer still reeling from a direct punch," said Patrick
B. Renaud, the Beirut ambassador for the European Union. "He was
shocked by the harshness of the message he received from the Syrian
An even harsher message followed.
As Marwan Hamade, the former minister of economy and trade and a
Hariri ally, drove away from his seaside apartment building on Oct.
1, a roadside bomb flung his Mercedes into the air. He clambered from
the flaming wreckage and collapsed to the ground at the very moment
the car's fuel tank exploded, sending shrapnel flying in all
directions. Mr. Hamade managed to survive with head injuries, severe
burns and a broken leg.
He was one of four cabinet ministers who had voted against the Lahoud
extension and then quit the government. He was also among the 29
Parliament members who voted against the constitutional amendment
granting Mr. Lahoud three more years. The failed assassination was
seen as a warning.
The Hamade bombing convinced Mr. Jumblatt that open defiance of Syria
was the only route left to restore democracy to Lebanon. He began
organizing a series of opposition meetings at the Bristol Hotel in
Beirut. Mr. Hariri did not attend, but several members of his Future
Movement did. After his assassination, it was this core group that
organized the huge street demonstrations that pressured Syria to
start withdrawing its forces.
In the days after the Hamade bombing, Mr. Hariri changed his security
routine somewhat. Bassem Sebah, a Shiite member of Parliament from
Mr. Hariri's bloc, said he used to drive the two of them to meetings
in a black BMW while sending his usual convoy of armored limousines
out as decoys.
He was confident that he would not be assassinated, though, aides and
political allies recalled, particularly because Washington had
publicly rebuked Damascus after the Hamade bombing, warning that it
would hold Syria responsible for any similar attacks.
Slowly throughout September and October, Mr. Hariri edged closer to
the opposition. Aides said he could no longer stomach another three
years battling Mr. Lahoud, whom he considered not only a lightweight
but also a Syrian pawn who was undermining Lebanese institutions by
backing the encroachment of secret police agencies that mirrored the
ones running Syria.
As Mr. Hamade put it in a speech after the assassination, Mr. Hariri
had been subverted because "the role of the intelligence was no
longer to keep up security, but to plant agents, generalize
wiretapping, distribute newspaper articles, threaten judges, bind
ministers and besiege members of Parliament."
A President as Insurance
Among Lebanese, Mr. Lahoud, 68, has a reputation for lounging through
most afternoons in his Speedos by the pool at the Yarze country club,
reading Paris-Match magazine and holding a tanning mirror. News
accounts that he was swimming during Mr. Hariri's funeral reached
such a crescendo that he felt compelled to deny them. "I swim every
day - it's my workout - but on that specific day, I did not swim," he
told a gathering of the Journalists' Union Council.
Opposition figures are convinced that one key reason Mr. Lahoud was
extended was that his family had developed close business ties with
the Assad clan in Damascus.
Foreign embassies suspect the same. "We have no solid evidence, but
we believe there is a big link," said a senior Western diplomat. "His
family seems to have done quite well for itself."
Mr. Lahoud rejected a request to be interviewed for this article.
Ever since he assumed the presidency in 1998, Mr. Lahoud proved
Syria's main insurance for keeping Mr. Hariri in check.
Syria considered Mr. Hariri a threat both because he was a Sunni
Muslim figure admired in both countries and because he had important
friends in the West. Syria's minority Alawite rulers deposed the once
dominant Sunnis there, so an obviously independent Sunni leader in
Lebanon might inspire unrest next door.
In fact, one reason Mr. Hariri was always reluctant to confront
Damascus was that his Sunni Muslim constituency still viewed Syria as
its portal to the wider world of Arab causes, and they did not
particularly want to be allied with the Maronites, their traditional
Mr. Lahoud ignored the fact that the prime minister was supposed to
lead all cabinet meetings. At one October meeting, he sat down and
announced that items 1 through 15 on Mr. Hariri's agenda would not be
discussed, one former minister recalled, sweeping away every
Over the years Mr. Lahoud and roughly 18 ministers allied with Syria
voted against any project Mr. Hariri proposed, from small items like
buying land for new schools to economic reforms. At a 2002 meeting of
international donors in Paris, the French president and Mr. Hariri
managed to secure more than $4 billion in aid to Lebanon, which was
heavily in debt, in exchange for economic reforms. Mr. Lahoud
effectively torpedoed all the reforms.
"Every cabinet meeting was an ordeal," Mr. Hamade said.
New Hope, and a Sudden End
The end for Mr. Hariri as prime minister came in October after the
Syrians sent him a message to step aside. He resigned on Oct. 20,
somewhat relieved, his aides said.
The next months were consumed mostly with planning for parliamentary
elections due in the spring and wrangling over the election law. The
Syrians were trying to gerrymander districts around Beirut and the
rest of the country to weaken the opposition. But the Christian-Sunni
Muslim-Druse coalition appeared to grow ever more formidable.
During this period, while he was planning his comeback, Mr. Hariri
seemed to become his old self again, friends and allies said. Mr.
Renaud, the European Union ambassador, recalls visiting him at his
combined office and mansion right after Christmas and seeing him
emerge from behind his desk waving a sheaf of papers and grinning,
saying, "We are going to win the elections!"
To test his Future Movement's popularity, Mr. Hariri announced that
to celebrate the Muslim feast of Al Adha, he would receive visitors
at his Beirut mansion on Jan. 10. The reaction was huge. Some 20,000
well-wishers poured through, said Ghattas Khoury, a member of his
By late January, Mr. Hariri was feeling confident enough that he
decided he would not accept any Syrian-nominated members on his
election list, his advisers say. His 19-member bloc in Parliament
included three men chosen by Rustom Ghazale, the head of Syrian
intelligence based in Anjar in the Bekaa region, and the man Lebanese
believe really ran their country, his aides said.
Mr. Hariri invited Mr. Ghazale to lunch in late January and told him
about the decision.
"They were not happy," said Ghazi Aridi, a former minister of
information who resigned in September over the Lahoud extension. He
recalls Mr. Ghazale telling Mr. Hariri, "You have to think about it
and we have to think about it."
It was beginning to look like the opposition could capture about 60
seats in the 128-seat Parliament, enough to elect a president other
than Mr. Lahoud. Around this time, Mr. Hariri and Mr. Jumblatt, the
Druse leader, had a meeting. Mr. Hariri's earlier confidence that he
would not be assassinated had slipped; the two men figured one or the
other would be killed soon.
"Any field where you challenge them, they get mad," Mr. Jumblatt
said. "Such totalitarian regimes cannot understand that you can have
the freedom to chose your own M.P.'s, or you choose your own local
administrators or I don't know what."
Two weeks after that conversation, the huge bomb that rocked all of
Beirut struck Mr. Hariri's motorcade. He, along with 18 other people,
"The goal of killing him was killing the political movement that
could succeed in controlling Lebanon, particularly since it looked
like the Syrians would have to leave," said Mr. Sebah, a member of
Parliament from Mr. Hariri's bloc. "I think they killed him because
they did not want a new political era in Lebanon."