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Lebanon Struggles Year After Hariri Killing


Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was killed one year ago Tuesday in a massive bomb blast that triggered major changes in Lebanon's political landscape, starting with the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

Rafik al-Hariri's picture is everywhere in Beirut these days.

It is plastered on walls all over town and beams down at the city from countless billboards. One near his burial site has a clock that has been counting the days since the former prime minister was killed. It has ticked over to 365.

Tuesday marks the first anniversary of Mr. Hariri's death, and a large rally is planned for the occasion. In the weeks after his assassination, massive protests in those same downtown streets drove political changes that seemed unimaginable just a year ago. They call it the Cedar Revolution.

Syrian troops have been driven out of the country, and for the first time Lebanon has a government led by people opposed to Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs.

Young people were at the heart of those protests last year, but at the American University of Beirut students are divided about whether they will take to the streets again to mark the anniversary of Rafik al-Hariri's death. Walking across campus under an umbrella in the pouring rain, business student Mayssa Rishani says she would not dream of missing the rally.

"Yeah, of course, that is for sure, you know," she said. "Because it is something really sad for the Lebanese people, what happened, and I think all of us should be there, for him, for the things that he had done for us."

But some others who joined the protesters last year will not be going to the square this year. A student named Kim says she has lost faith in the movement's leaders.

"We all went down the streets and we all demonstrated. And yeah, there have been many changes, but I do not think it is enough," she explained. "And I do not know how to continue, because I do not think I am going to go down tomorrow. I do not get the point of this demonstration, the one of tomorrow. And I do not know how to continue the changes we started."

The withdrawal of Syrian troops was followed by a parliamentary election, in which most of the seats were won by anti-Syrian alliance led by Mr. Hariri's son, Saad al-Hariri.

Professor Fadia Kiwan heads the political science department at St. Joseph University in Beirut. She says the Hariri camp made a strategic error by forging political alliances for the election, instead of capitalizing on the national unity expressed in the aftermath of Rafik al-Hariri's death.

"The first step was the spontaneous reaction of people to demonstrate a solidarity with Hariri's family and movement, and asking for the withdrawal of the Syrians," she noted. "But later on, the elections were a very big error. They won the elections, but they lost the Lebanese unity, the Lebanese reconciliation."

One major complaint of many anti-Syrian forces is the fact that President Emile Lahoud is still in office. He is a close ally of Damascus, which engineered the extension of his term in office in 2004.

His foes are pushing for him to leave, but Mr. Lahoud says he has no plans to resign. And divisions in the anti-Syrian camp means there is no consensus on who should replace him.

Prominent human-rights lawyer Chibli Mallat was heavily involved in last year's protests, and has declared himself a candidate for president.

"We are in the middle of an unachieved revolution," he said. "We have overall succeeded in our sovereignty revolution, we have the Syrian troops out. But even on that score, we know that the Syrians are interfering heavily, either directly, through the assassinations, or indirectly through remnants of the old regime, most particularly the current president who remains in power. They are continuing to interfere directly and indirectly, and shamelessly, in the conduct of Lebanese politics. That must stop, so even that is unachieved business."

The Hariri assassination was just one of a string of killings and bombings that many Lebanese blame on Syria. The most recent victim was newspaper editor and newly elected member of parliament Gibran Tueni, who like most of the other targets was an outspoken critic of Syrian interference.

Some local journalists say the continued violence has sapped the momentum of the pro-democracy movement, forcing its leaders into exile for their own protection. Gibran Tueni had just returned to Lebanon from France the day before he was killed.

Saad al-Hariri stayed mainly in Saudi Arabia for six months, returning to Beirut Saturday, before the anniversary of his father's killing.

Political science professor Fadia Kiwan says the later assassinations have radicalized the anti-Syrian forces even more than the killing of Mr. Hariri did, and she recalls another victim.

"We had among them unfortunately one of our colleagues and friends," she added. "The day before, he was sitting on this chair, and we were exchanging on the situation, Samir Kassir, he [was] one of our team of the faculty … here. The day before, we were here, trying to make the point on the political situation. He was very optimistic that day. He was very optimistic."

After Rafik al-Hariri died, the protesters who camped in a downtown Beirut square for weeks believed they could make a change, and they did. But in the wake of continued assassinations and political uncertainty, that kind of optimism is hard to find.

Back at the university campus, a student named Mohammed wears a tiny lapel pin bearing Mr. Hariri's photo.

"With everything happening with the political situation, it is hard to be somehow optimistic. But I am very happy that certain events, such as 14 February, will keep us together in order to keep the problems away, because I think this event is very important to keep the Lebanese people together, to keep the unity," he said.

Mohammed gently twists his lapel pin and says that the rally on Tuesday must make it clear that Lebanese will work hard to preserve everything Mr. Hariri helped build.

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