Today, February 14, marks the 15 year anniversary of the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The man is still fondly remembered. This, in a region where assasinations have become the norm, at least for the past few decades, with the war in Iraq emboldening Iran to spread its influence.
In the last few weeks, two headlines emerged from the region that cannot be ignored: The killing of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, alleged to have had a role in Hariri's assasination, and the economic and political meltdown of Lebanon, which Hariri spent much of his life trying to rebuild.
Today, his country is facing one of its worst moments. Fifteen years after his death, the modern state he had started building is in shambles, almost isolated from the international arena.
"He was bigger than Lebanon", is a sad refrain you will hear from so many of his supporters and loved ones. He was "the father of the poor."
Hariri was killed in a massive truck bomb explosion in Beirut in 2005, which also killed 25 other people.
Who was Hariri?
Hariri was seen as one of the people. He came from the masses. He was born into an ordinary family, and grew up in the narrow old streets of Sidon.
He was neither a warlord nor a feudal lord who inherited a seat in the political scene of his war-torn country.
Hariri earned his stripes. He worked long and hard away from his native land. He made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, becoming the personal contractor of Prince Fahd, who later became the King of Saudi Arabia.
He returned from Saudi Arabia in 1992 and eventually became prime minister. He earned the support of Saudi Arabia as well as many international figures, including his close friend, the late French president Jacques Chirac.
- Rafik Hariri was born on November 1, 1944 to an ordinary family in the southern city of Sidon.
- Graduated from Beirut Arab University, where he studied business administration.
- In 1965, Hariri left for Saudi Arabia, where he started his career as a teacher and later found employment at a construction company.
- Hariri's dedication made him successful, and he eventually became the personal contractor of Prince Fahd, who became the king of Saudi Arabia.
- In 1979, Hariri founded the Hariri Foundation, a non-profit organisation that helped more than 30,000 students pursue a university education in Lebanon, France, the UK, and North America.
- Hariri started his career in politics in 1983, as a political adviser to Prince Bandar Bin Sultan and then became a Saudi diplomat.
- Hariri played a major role in the 1989 Taif Agreement, which marked the end of the 15-year civil war in Lebanon.
Upon his election in 1992 as the first premier after the Civil War, many Lebanese people who had lost their morale during the war pinned their hopes on Hariri.
He was the force that drew the Lebanese Diaspora back home, bringing with them their experience and resources needed to help rebuild the country.
Hariri in office
As prime minister of Lebanon, he is widely credited with getting the country back on its feet after the devastating r civil conflict. But was also critisised for his economic policies.
With his vast experience in construction, Hariri led the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure, airport, schools, sports stadiums. He reinvigorated the services sector. Tourists started flocking back.
Hariri had his share of critics. He was chastised for his approach to the economy. His ambitious "borrow-and-build" schemes left a massive public debt and budget deficit, pushed up interest rates and slowed growth.
It is not important who will stay and who will go, what matters is the country
He was accused of ignoring the poor, despite his long record of funding charitable causes. He was Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998, and again from 2000 until his resignation in 2004 — a total of five terms.
When he left power in 1998, it was due partly to the fact that Hariri was reluctant to play second fiddle to President Emile Lahoud, a former army chief, and Syria's man in Lebanon.
Hariri was hounded by black propaganda and accusations of corruption, led by Syria's voices in Lebanon. He faced relentless criticisms, fairly or unfairly, for saddling the country with massive debt.
The government back then asked neighbouring Syria to send in troops. And the Syrians, who have always seen Lebanon as part of greater Syria, were happy to oblige.
The troops stayed even after the war was over. Soon, Hafez Al Assad, the then president of Syria, was installing his own puppet politicians in positions of power.
Hariri’s wealth and popularity — not to mention his influence as the owner of a growing portfolio of Lebanese and French newspapers and television and radio stations — gave him a reputation far beyond Lebanon.
As the country's premier, Harriri had a clear vision: He wanted to make Beirut the financial capital of the Middle East, as it had once been — and Lebanon, a liberal, Western-oriented country.
His enemies sought to maintain the status quo, with Hezbollah emerging as Lebanon's powerful paramilitary force.
Hariri returned in October 2000, with international support. He presided over a revival in Lebanon's tourism industry, largely thanks to hundreds of thousands of visiting Gulf Arabs.
But, during the crisis over the extension of President Lahoud's term in office, Hariri had a falling out with key elements in the government.
But the struggle for political control emerged during a dispute over the fate of Emile Lahoud, the president of Lebanon since 1998, who was then about to end his final term in office.
The role of the president is largely ceremonial. But Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, had long backed Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad decided it was important to keep Lahoud in place, a move that would require amending Lebanon’s Constitution.
Hariri was firmly opposed to the amendment. Those who opposed him were convinced Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, a Druse opposition leader, were acting behind the scenes to help the UN Security Council pass Resolution 1559, calling upon Hezbollah to disarm and Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.
On August 26, 2004, Hariri was summoned to the presidential palace in Damascus to be delivered an ultimatum: Lahoud must remain in office, even if the United States and France don’t like it.
Hariri objected, but was cut short. If Hariri or Jumblatt tried to stop Lahoud, Bashar Al Assad, who was present at the meeting, allegedly said, Lebanon would be "broken over their heads".
Then the threat was repeated: “I will break Lebanon over your head and over Walid Jumblatt’s head,” he was told. “So you had better return to Beirut and arrange the matter on that basis.”
He never overtly came out against Syria in the dispute, but his resignation in October 2004 was taken as a clear protest against the Syrian pressure to keep Lahoud in office.
It was a move which some say cost Hariri his life.
On February 14, 2005, a year after he quit as Prime Minister and endured a heavy internal pressure, even as he was calling for the Syrian withdrawl from Lebanon, explosives were detonated as his motorcade drove past the St George Hotel in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
At the time of his assasination, Hariri was campaining for a new third term, which he would have won easily.
His enemies were scared of that term, as Hariri had an international support behind him, reassuring him that no one can harm him or his family amid all the threats he was getting from the Syrian leader.
His death had profound implications for Lebanon. It paved the way for the so-called "Cedar Revolution" and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country after 29 years
Who killed Rafik Hariri?
The probe into his murder led to years of political turmoil. Five men — Hussain Hassan Oneissi, Salim Jamil Ayyash, Assad Hassan Sabra, Hassan Habib Merhi and Mustafa Amine Badreddine — were indicted on charges of murder and terrorism.
The five are all believed to be, or to have been, high-ranking members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia that has maintained an alliance with the Syrian government since its creation in the early 1980s.
All five were tried in absentia.
Badreddine, one of the five defendants, was killed last year in Syria by an explosion near Damascus airport. Though no one claimed responsibility, the Israeli government had previously attempted to assassinate Badreddine.
Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, promised that no member of his party would be arrested, and Lebanese authorities have until now declined to make any attempts to do so.
"No Lebanese government will be able to make any arrests whether in 30 days, 30 years or even 300 years," he said after the indictments were announced.
The UN’s investigation into the case began in 2007, and the tribunal itself was established in 2009.
Saad Hariri said a decade ago, years before the beginning of the war in Syria: "There is a country and a regime that has been pounding at Lebanon with assassinations and explosions after explosions and killings after killings, which have been going on for over 30 years,” he told Time magazine in 2007.
"It is important to punish those who commit these crimes, for them to understand they don't have a license to kill."
Hariri assassination, 15 years later
Lebanon today is in the midst of a deep financial and political crisis, and on the verge of being categorised as 'a failed state' by the World Bank and the IMF.
The new cabinet that won the vote of confidence on February 11, is a government that is of one colour, represented by Hezbollah and its allies.
They face today a public debt that stands at $86 billion (Dh315.6 billion), or more than 150 per cent of gross domestic product. This, while the government is failing to provide basic services.
In the past 15 years, Lebanon has had little foreign investment or aid, lost the support of the Gulf states and the West, with Hezbollah dominating governments.
Lebanon today has no electric power, water reserves are falling short, piles of garbage are seen across the country, unemployment runs at 37 per cent among youth, and teh country is suffering from a deteriorating infrastructure and public services.
All what Hariri built and provided has been destroyed and diminished with corruption and mismanagement.
Banks have been intermittently closed since mid-October and depositors across the country are finding it impossible to gain access to dollar balances.
Lebanon today after 15 years is in need of a genuine structural and political reform to be saved.
Today, Rafik Hariri’s time as prime minister is recalled as the golden age of prosperity, each year after his assasination is proving to be worse than the year that passed.
- With inputs from The New York Times