On Valentine’s Day, Lebanon was the scene of an appalling act of terrorism at mid day local time. The explosion rocked the beach front district of Beirut where allot of the cities five star hotels are located. The target was the motorcade of Mr. Rafiq Hariri, who was the former prime minister of Lebanon. Prior to his death, he had attended a session of the Lebanese parliament in the central part of Beirut. Afterwards he was heading to his residence where he then tragically met his end.
The latest reports had indicated that around nine people were killed and around a hundred were injured. The explosion had left many vehicles destroyed along with damaged shop fronts and a large crater. Windows from as far as a mile away were shattered because of the blast.
Mr. Rafiq Hariri was a self made billionaire who had made his fortune in Saudi Arabia. He was a trained teacher who had gone to the Persian Gulf region in hopes of finding success. He was born to a poor Sunni family in the southern port of Sidon in 1944.
In Saudi Arabia he had found employment in a construction company and later on, he was able to start his own construction company which was named Saudi Oger. He became a personal contractor to the then Prince Fahd, who would eventually become the king of Saudi Arabia. His hard work, intelligence and connections enabled him to amass a huge personal fortune for himself in the desert kingdom. He made it to the Forbes magazine’s list of the hundred richest men in the world.
His exact net worth was not known but conservative estimates had placed his personal fortune at almost four billion dollars.
He had returned to Lebanon in 1992 to enter the world of Lebanese politics. At that time Lebanon was recovering from a fifteen year civil war. He was regarded as a breath of fresh air in Lebanon whose population was desperate for positive changes.
During his tenure as prime minister (from 1992-1998 & from 2000-2004) he wanted to restore Beirut as one of the world’s leading financial centers. He had implemented many borrowing and building schemes to rehabilitate the nation’s economy. His credentials and personal connections had brought in much needed foreign investment to Lebanon. His policy had put Lebanon’s economy back on its feet but at a heavy cost that had left the nation with a huge foreign debt.
Unlike the vast majority of the political elite in the Arab world he was a true economic and political reformer. He had opened up Lebanon’s economy to permit it to function to the best of its capacity. He worked for the interest of the Lebanese nation and his dream was for Lebanon to return to its former glory and unfortunately he was never able to realize that vision.
This news not only sent shock waves in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East as well and it must have made the Bush Administration quite upset at this new development. Rafiq Hariri was the face of Lebanon; he was a dominant figure both financially and politically. His other priorities for Lebanon not only extended to the economy but towards its full independence and freedom. Make note of these two words, independence and freedom and then anyone can guess as to who would want a man such as Mr. Hariri out of the way. If one wants to point fingers then one must ask the question:” who benefits?”
One of the foreign policy hallmarks of the Bush administration is the democratization of the Middle East. It is not an easy task by any means and it cannot be done at the pace which was witnessed in the former nations of the Iron Curtain. But the ground work can be laid. This desire on the part of the Bush administration came into being because of the September eleventh attacks.
The premise for this idea is that citizens of democratic nations are far less likely to be involved in acts of terrorism. We have seen so far, successful elections in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the Palestinian territories. Were they perfect? No they were not but many elections have the proverbial bumps and bruises but the bottom line is that they had all met international standards.
A nation governed by a fully elected and accountable and I stress again, ACCOUNTABLE government with a free market economy will give the citizens of that nation hope and the energy to work hard and make something of themselves. The vast majority of Islamic nations do not give their citizens the opportunity or feeling that they have a stake in their future and the future of their nation. For example if you ask anyone if they would rather live under a totalitarian or democratic nation, I would bet you they would prefer to live in a free and open society.
President Bush in this year’s State of the Union address had reaffirmed his commitment to liberty in the Middle East. Here are some key quotes:
“Our generational commitment to the advance of freedom, especially in the Middle East, is now being tested and honored in Iraq."
"The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace is within reach - and America will help them achieve that goal."
“The United States has no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else. That is one of the main differences between us and our enemies. They seek to impose and expand an empire of oppression, in which a tiny group of brutal, self-appointed rulers control every aspect of every life.”
“Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures. And because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.”
“To promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder. Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region”
“Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror - pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve...”
“To the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.”
These quotes have significant relevance to Mr. Hariri’s death in that he was a progressive thinker who had good relations with President Bush as well as President Jacques Chirac of France. These three men were of one mind in Lebanon’s need to being totally independent and democratic. That would mean that the fifteen thousand or so Syrian troops who are stationed in Lebanon would have to withdraw.
Emile Lahoud, the current President of Lebanon is Damascus’s man in Beirut. His term was set to end in November of 2004 but amid a great deal of controversy, his term was extended in September to another three years by the parliament that had passed a constitutional amendment allowing him to do so. This came as no great surprise because most members of the Lebanese parliament are loyal to Damascus. This transpired about the same time the U.N. had called for free and fair presidential elections in Lebanon.
Rafiq Hariri was opposed to Syria’s role in Lebanon’s internal affairs. Amid the controversy of the extension of President Lahoud’s term, Mr. Hariri resigned his post as prime minister. However he had decided to make a come back into public service by running in Lebanon’s legislative elections which were scheduled in May. Recently the White House along with the French government was calling for an end to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. The heat was on Syria and the other authoritarian regimes in the area. It was clear that Lebanon was on a momentum for independence and freedom. The Lebanese are highly educated and they have had past experiences in democracy. That desire for freedom along with a strong dislike for Damascus’s domination over their nation would have led to Syrian troops leaving one way or another and then the ousting of the pro-Syrian government that would pave the wave for the Middle East’s next free election. For sure Rafiq Hariri would have been the next Lebanese head of state and he could have been the “Vaclav Havel”of the Middle East.
That scenario would be too unbearable for Syria to deal with. When the citizens of Syria watch on Al Jazeera free elections taking place in their smaller neighbor, they too would put a great deal of pressure on the Baath regime to have the same rights. The wave of change is going through this part of the world, rather slowly but its going. The death of Mr. Hariri had slowed this momentum it seems but it could put even more pressure on Syria to leave Lebanon.
A group by the name of Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria who are pretty much unknown had claimed responsibility for this act. This was a sophisticated operation that was beyond the scope of a little known and obscure terrorist group.
The Lebanese opposition had issued a statement from the former Prime Minister’s house stating: "We hold the Lebanese authority and the Syrian authority, being the authority of tutelage in Lebanon, responsible for this crime and other similar crimes.” They had also called on Syrian troops to leave Lebanon as well as the resignation of President Lahoud’s government.
For now there is a sense of fear and uncertainty in Beirut. On the night of Valentine’s Day the streets were absolutely deserted which normally would have been filled with late night revelers. Rafiq Hariri’s death was a great blow to the people of Lebanon and this tragedy had become much bigger than Lebanon for it has struck terror into those who want to bring freedom and prosperity to a region that is very much deficient in these two things. Tehran has placed it’s bet and Damascus has rolled the dice and let us all hope and pray that maybe this could galvanize the collective will of people desiring for bigger and better things and that the dictatorial regimes from Cairo to Damascus and hopefully on to Tehran will all be overthrown and the leaders will be brought to justice and made to account for their crimes.