The car bomb that killed the former prime minister wiped out all hope of a prosperous and peaceful country
On Feb. 14, 2005, Rafic Hariri and 21 other people were killed when a massive bomb hidden inside a van parked on Beirut’s bustling Corniche was detonated as the former Lebanese prime minister’s six-car motorcade passed by.
Hariri, who served as Lebanon’s prime minister from 1992 to 1998, and again from 2000 to 2004, had played a central role in reviving the battered nation’s fortunes. As the architect of the Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement that ended the 15-year Lebanese civil war, he went on to deliver a peace dividend that was most apparent in Beirut’s reconstruction and economic revival.
His death shocked the world and angered a nation that had hoped its bloodiest days were behind it, but even in death Hariri had more to give. His murder triggered the peaceful popular protests that came to be known as the Cedar Revolution, which in turn led to the withdrawal of the Syrian forces that had been in Lebanon since 1976.
DUBAI: The Middle East in the early 2000s was in a state of flux. Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq. Al-Qaeda and its various hydra-headed affiliates were running amok, popping up everywhere. Terrorists were on a killing spree. There was chaos and confusion.
It was at this particularly unstable time that I got into journalism at Lebanon’s Future Television. There were plenty of stories — mostly of death and destruction; conspiracy and collusion; revenge and vendetta. There seemed to be an unending and singularly vicious cycle of violence.
In Lebanon, on the other hand, Rafic Hariri was scripting a rare success story. Following his vision, and thanks to the Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement that brought an end to the civil war, Lebanon had finally found its feet as the “Switzerland of the East.”
Hariri was at the country’s helm as prime minister from 1992 to 1998, and again from 2000 to 2004. He turned Lebanon around, infusing new life into a country that had been ripped asunder by a bloody civil war. It was a dream time for the country.
Lebanon became the talk of the town in shisha cafes across the region. Here was a Middle Eastern country proving that it could rise from the ashes and earn the admiration of its people as well as of the wider world. It could set an example for others to follow. The one man responsible for this unprecedented and historic turnaround was Hariri.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, all good things come to an end, or in the Middle East, are brought to a violent end with bloody carnage. And so it was that the purveyors of death and destruction, the satanic forces that had been lying in wait for a long time, struck. The place of their strike was the center of Beirut with the destructive force of some 1,800 kg of deadly explosives. Hariri was assassinated at the age of only 60.
Prime Minister Rafic Hariri supports UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling for Syrian and other foreign forces to leave Lebanon.
Hariri resigns as prime minister in protest at Syria’s role in Lebanon.
While campaigning for parliamentary elections, Hariri urges the opposition to back Resolution 1559.
Hariri is assassinated.
Under pressure from world opinion and the mass protests of the Cedar Revolution, Syrian troops finally withdraw from Lebanon.
Appointed by the UN to investigate Hariri’s murder, the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon opens in The Hague. Four suspected members of Hezbollah are eventually charged with his murder. One has since died; the others are fugitives.
I was nearly 4,000 km away, in London, working for Asharq Al-Awsat. I remember that day with pain and pathos. It was Monday Feb. 14, 2005. Those were pre-Twitter days, and suddenly I was being deluged with text messages, so I rushed to my office.
I watched the whole world freezing as I saw the images of the exploding car. For me, it was not just any other piece of news because I had worked at Future Television, which Hariri had founded, and I had known him personally. I also knew, and had worked with, a number of people who were at the blast scene in Beirut, including the cameraman who was seen weeping at the time.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes, all good things come to an end, or in the Middle East, are brought to a violent end with bloody carnage.
Faisal J. Abbas | Editor in Chief
My pain and anger were greater because I had witnessed what was commonly referred to as “the second golden era of Lebanon” — between 1992 and 2005, when Hariri was in his prime. Many memories flashed through my mind.
I remembered distinctly the euphoria when then-French President Jacques Chirac came and walked hand in hand with Hariri in Downtown Beirut. That had been a beautiful summer night in the early 2000s, with the downtown buzzing with citizens, expats and tourists. They were out to enjoy fine dining, shopping, clubbing, or puffing on shishas in the then-newly renovated heart of the Lebanese capital.
So busy and alive was the atmosphere, and I recall sitting with a number of friends. We had chosen to go to a famous downtown cafe opposite the headquarters of the now-defunct pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. We had to struggle to get the attention of the waiters, who were doing their best to handle the flood of orders being thrown at them, mostly by much better-tipping Gulf tourists who did not — for obvious reasons — have as many problems as we students did in getting their attention!
Then, all of a sudden, the musician playing the saxophone by our table stopped his music. Everybody stood up and people all around us began clapping and cheering as Hariri emerged on the scene, holding hands with Chirac.
The president was on an official visit to Lebanon at the time, and Hariri had decided to show him first-hand the progress made by the Lebanese people, both socially and physically. What better way to do this than taking Chirac out for a walk to experience the kind of vibrant life that Hariri had worked so hard to provide for his nation?
There were no bodyguards in sight; there were no weapons and no formalities whatsoever. On the contrary, both leaders casually greeted people and shook hands with them as the musician began, with no prompting, to play the French national anthem on his saxophone.
It was phenomenal and incredible how Hariri managed to turn Lebanon around in less than a decade. There was a new airport, a new downtown, and tourism was flourishing. Everything was going right for the country. That was indeed the prime of Lebanon — its legendary second golden period.
Back in my office in London, I realized immediately how Hariri’s assassination was going to impact Lebanon. I anticipated and painfully watched a steady deterioration and institutions failing one after the other.
Today Lebanon has defaulted on its debt, and people are protesting the lack of jobs, opportunities and even basic living conditions such as 24-hour electricity. More worrying is the reality that the de facto ruler of the country is now the Iran-backed Hezbollah, no matter who the elected government is.
The assassination of Hariri wiped out all hope of a prosperous and peaceful Lebanon. It only added to the depressing scenario that existed and still exists in the wider Middle East. Fifteen years have passed since his assassination, and I have written umpteen articles on the state of affairs in Lebanon. Whenever I write, I recall wistfully and nostalgically the stellar vision and leadership that Hariri provided for Lebanon. Sadly, however, those days are gone — and they are not coming back.
“The explosion blew a 10-meter-wide crater in the street, set at least 20 cars on fire, and scarred the front of the landmark Phoenicia Hotel, where windows shattered and debris littered the balconies.”
Danielle Hosari in Arab News, Feb. 15, 2005
Hariri had a vision, and that vision died with him. His critics say that he was a Saudi puppet, and that he brought the financial debt that Lebanon is in now. Of course, the country had to borrow money under Hariri, but it was on its way to recovery and the numbers showed it.
As for being the Kingdom’s puppet, well — its Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Salman rightly put it in his recent interview with Vice: Saudi Arabia sent tourists to Lebanon and Iran sent terrorists (including Hezbollah, which is accused of Hariri’s killing).
If in doubt over which vision is better for Lebanon, one only has to compare Downtown Beirut that was under Hariri when Chirac visited, with what it is today under the armed rule of Hezbollah, much like the whole country: Torn apart by political divisions and unable to function, with businesses closing down and tourists nowhere to be found.
- Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News editor-in-chief, began his journalism career in Lebanon. Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas