Why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was Created (Part I) Rafiq el Hariri: Why the Big Fuss?

Note: This post is the first part in a series explaining why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which opened its doors on March 1, 2009, was created. Today’s post explains why Rafiq el Hariri was such an important personality on the national, regional and international scenes. Check back in the next few days for a discussion of the Western powers’ reasons and interest in prosecuting those responsible for Hariri’s assassination.  

        Lebanon’s Most Important Financial Asset

In his heyday, Rafiq el Hariri was one of the richest people in the world. A self-made billionaire, he had spent most of his adult life building a corporate empire in Saudi Arabia, and at the end of the civil war in Lebanon, moved back to his home country where he became the de facto re-builder of run-down Beirut. The tiny enclave of architecturally re-furbished (yet strangely character-bereft) buildings that make up today’s downtown Beirut is the product of Hariri’s efforts to revamp one of the most dilapidated part of the city through the company Solidere, of which he was the largest shareholder.

Solidere succeeded in turning the area into a huge tourist attraction and a crucial economic asset for the country, yet at the same time, attracted widespread criticism. First, because it did so by expropriating the original landowners and compensating them with shares worth much less than the expropriated property’s value. As if this were not enough, the share plummeted in value a few years later in 2001 (from about $17US per share to $3US per share). Although the price climbed back up eventually, Solidere’s questionable corporate practices in the process of reconstruction (as an example, Hariri’s fortune went from being valued at $4.3 billion US in 2005 to $16.7 billion US in 2006 by Forbes, with no explanation by his family as to how it could have quadrupled in one year), its perceived and actual superiority over the government on the reconstruction issue, suspicions of influencing the judiciary in court actions brought against it by its opponents, as well its disregard for individual and property rights, and freedom of press attracted the scorn of many. Read the great article “The Reconstruction of Downtown Beirut in the Context of Political Geography” by Professor Heiko Schimd which discusses the politics of the reconstruction with great detail and background. In light of this, it’s easy to condemn Solidere and Hariri. On the other hand, despite these accusations, it’s worth wondering whether without them, what little renovations were carried out in the city would ever have been carried out. Hariri was also noted for his philanthropic activities and channelled significant sums of money towards financing the education of tens of thousands of Lebanese students. In all, it’s not easy to make a black or white qualification of him. The good and bad sides of his legacy should merely be considered as a hole.

Fr   From Mr. Lebanon to Mr. Anti-Syria

Hariri coupled his financial capital to equally weighty political capital, and became one of the major, if not the major, player in Lebanese politics. He was Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998, and then again from 2000-2004. He developed strategic ties and friendships with big international players, such as former French President Jacques Chirac (who made his affiliation clear when he attended Hariri’s funeral, but snubbed the pro-Syrian politicians including then President Emile Lahoud), and more or less became Lebanon’s face both inside and outside Lebanon. Both periods of his premiership took place under the Syrian mandate, that is when Syria more or less had turned Lebanon into a fiefdom and had a say in, well, everything.

I open an important contextual parenthesis here: Without getting into the nitty gritty of Lebanese constitutional law and at the risk of oversimplifying, it’s important to mention that the Taef Agreement which put an end to the civil war changed the balance of power by transferring many of the President’s powers and his executive authority (the President being always a member of the Maronite community) to the Prime Minister (always a Sunni) and the Council of Ministers (ie the cabinet). This reform was an attempt to more accurately reflect the demographic changes which had taken place in the country since the country’s sectarian power sharing system had been devised in the earlier parts of the 20th century (and going back as far as the 1860s). For a more detailed background discussion on this, see Hassan Krayem’s article The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement.

I close the parenthesis now and return to Hariri’s tenure as Prime Minister, or more correctly, President of the Council of Ministers. Despite being “in bed” with the Syrian government for a considerable period, Hariri eventually fell out of favour with Bashar el Asad. He had too much clout for the Syrians not be concerned, and they tried to balance him out by strengthening their main ally, President Lahoud. The Syrians circumvented the changes brought about by Taef by propping up Lahoud at the expense of the Council of Ministers. To get an idea of the tug of war between Lahoud and Hariri, see the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin’s “dossier” on Lahoud. When you read this dossier however, keep in mind that the MEIB is published by the US Committee for a Free Lebanon, a right-wing lobby group which includes Fouad Ajami and Daniel Pipes among its recommended experts. It nonetheless offers a detailed account of the power struggle between Lahoud and Hariri, and the former’s relationship with the Syrian government.

In the summer of 2004, as Lahoud’s term was drawing to an end, it became clear that Syria planned for Lahoud to stay on despite constitutionally being barred from doing so (Article 49 (2) of the Lebanese Constitution limits the President to one six-year term in office). Syria therefore began piling on pressure for a constitutional amendment to be passed which would allow Lahoud’s term to be extended by another three years. Hariri initially opposed the extension. But as the story goes, he was summoned to Damascus and had a very brief meeting with Bashar el Asad, who threatened to “break Lebanon” on Hariri’s head if he blocked the extension. Hariri allegedly had such a shock from that meeting that his nose started bleeding. Under pressure, he voted in favour of a bill setting out the amendment.

On September 3, 2004, Parliament approved the amendment, allowing for Lahoud to extend his term in office until November 2007. On September 9, 2004, Hariri told journalists he intended to resign in protest over the extension, which he officially did on October 1, 2004. Over the next weeks and months, Hariri formed an impressive cross-sectarian opposition coalition group which brazenly began denouncing Syria’s role in Lebanon. From the richest man in Lebanon, to the most powerful politician in Lebanon, Hariri transformed himself yet again, this time into the most visible and most important critic of the Syrian mandate. He thus came to embody all the frustrations which had been accumulating in Lebanon against the Syrian regime, and became both the symbol and the leader of anti-Syrian sentiment.