Is it still too early to judge Rafik Hariri’s legacy?

Rafik Hariri was an affable man, energetic and good company. He was also surprisingly humble.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri attends a parliamentary session in Beirut, September 2004. (AFP)
Looking back. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri attends a parliamentary session in Beirut, September 2004. (AFP)

On February 14, 2005, I flew from northern Iraq to Beirut. Resting in the Erbil departures hall, I barely noticed a silent television showing what I assumed was the latest bombing in Iraq. Then I recognised Ain Mreisseh on the Beirut seafront.

It was the attack that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri along with 21 other people with a massive bomb — estimated at 1,000 kilograms of explosives. The bomb was detonated shortly after his motorcade left the Lebanese parliament. I wrote Hariri’s obituary on a 20-seat, propeller aircraft flying over the deserts of Iraq and Syria and then the snow-capped Lebanese peak of Qurnat as Sawda.

Hariri, for me, was a latter-day Phoenician. Like his forebears who traded along the Mediterranean and beyond, he believed in the lure, even the healing power, of commerce. If the Lebanese could do business well, then they would forget, even overcome, the sectarianism that had fuelled a 15-year civil war and that still defined Lebanese politics.

It was a strategy and the country was short of leaders with any strategy. Hariri was a good storyteller and he told the Lebanese how they might move forward. He once insisted to me that the Lebanese all ate the same food and celebrated each other’s religious festivals. “The problem,” he said, “is with the politicians, not the people.”

Hariri was an affable man, energetic and good company. He was also surprisingly humble. I once brought up with him the lack of public access to the seafront, which is required in Lebanon by law, and the many illegal buildings below high tide. I told the prime minister that Beirut’s Hamam al-Askari, the military swimming club, had once been a sandy beach where all could walk or swim.

He disagreed, saying he remembered that area as a child and it had never been a sandy beach. So, the next time I went to see him I took an old poster — one of the large tourist ones — showing that seafront with its sandy beach before the Hamam al-Askari was built. Hariri immediately admitted he had been wrong, rare in a Lebanese political leader. A few weeks later I found out he had framed the picture and put in on a wall.

On another occasion, in a newspaper story, I compared two jokes about Hariri to show how his popularity had declined over a certain period. In the first, walking on the Corniche and asked by a magic genie for a wish, Hariri had replied, “No, no, what can I do for you?”

In the second, Hariri met an ordinary Beiruti. “I am poor and can’t pay my bills,” said the man. “Oh dear,” said Hariri, surprised. “My wife is also poor,” said the man, insisting. “And my children are poor.” Hariri finally looked concerned: “And your servants?” he asked. “Are they poor, too?”

One of Hariri’s aides complained that including such jokes in a newspaper showed a lack of respect for the prime minister. Such remarks can lead to a reporter being denied access but Hariri wanted none of it, he enjoyed the story. If he didn’t already know what people said in shared taxis, then he wanted to find out. This was more important to him than his own ego.

For the Lebanese, Hariri was larger than life. Not only did they swap jokes about him, they passed on rumours about pieces of land and property he had supposedly bought, sometimes imagining his financial tentacles in unlikely places.

In interviewing Hariri, the “harder” the questions, the better he answered. The first time I went to Lebanon, in January 1996, I interviewed Hariri for BBC radio. When I asked him his opinion of Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, he said his television at home wasn’t tuned to receive it. It was a clever answer delivered for radio with impeccable timing.

Perhaps this mixture of directness and diplomacy was why some of Hariri’s finest moments were in crisis. During the 1996 Israeli “Grapes of Wrath” attacks and the Qana massacre, he was genuinely statesman-like — not exactly common in Lebanese politics. Hariri spoke well and he spoke for Lebanon and not for any particular sect, party or interest.

It is too early to say how history will judge Hariri. Without doubt he was the major figure in post-war Lebanese politics, more responsible than anyone for the country’s direction. Reconstruction has had successes but many burdens resulted from his economic policies. The public debt is $78 billion and the Lebanese ask whether this money has been wisely spent. Corruption has been rampant and many farmers lack basic irrigation. There are no railways and the lack of 24-hour electricity reflects a creaking infrastructure.

When I went to see Hariri just before I moved to Iran in December 2003, he feigned surprise. “You are a journalist,” he said. “Why are you leaving? Here in Lebanon, if you spend ten minutes on the phone or watching satellite television, you can know what’s going on anywhere in the world. In Iran, in ten years you won’t know what’s going on in the next house.” That was the last time I saw him. May he rest in peace.