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Sect Symbols | The Nation

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Sect Symbols

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Sadly, you won't find this depth of reporting in any of the Hariri biographies on the market. The best of these, Blanford's Killing Mr Lebanon, relies heavily on interviews with Hariri's retinue, turning occasionally to pro-Syrian lawmakers for "balance." Like Bob Woodward's early, fawning Bush at War, Blanford's book trades critical distance for access to power. The result is that while fast-paced and rich with contextual wisdom, Killing Mr Lebanon is essentially an oral history of March 14, the political movement made up of Hariri's party and its allies. (It's named after the gigantic rally in downtown Beirut one month after his killing.) Blanford's book glosses over Hariri's ruthless cronyism, giving short shrift to his legitimate critics, who are dismissed--in the rhetoric of the Hariri camp--as disgruntled dead-enders, carping "pro-Syrian" hangers-on and sectarian snobs who couldn't stomach a self-made Sunni.

About the Author

Annia Ciezadlo
Annia Ciezadlo, a journalist based in Beirut, has written for The New Republic and the Christian Science Monitor.

Also by the Author

The wounds of the country's long civil war and Israeli occupation were
gradually healing. That fragile recovery now lies buried under the
rubble of renewed fighting.

As Lebanon braces for a descent into an all-too-familiar chaos, anger and the quest for comfort have sent people to the streets in search of bread and someone to blame. Anna Ciezadlo reports from Beirut that when Iraqis are text-messaging from Baghdad to see if you're OK, you know it's not good.

There is some truth to this. The big landowners in downtown Beirut were from old aristocratic families; Hariri was an upstart from the provinces, a new-money Muslim who overstepped the traditional bounds of the city's Sunni mercantile elite. Hariri and his Saudi patrons were a threat both to Lebanon's entrenched confessional interests and the Syrian puppetmasters who manipulated them with such skill.

But it wasn't the big landowners who lost the most when Solidere seized their land. They had enough wasta--influence, connections, pull--to make sure they were well compensated, and enough cash to meet Solidere's byzantine requirements for keeping their homes, which only very few could afford. Rather, it was the middle-class entrepreneurs--the grocers, booksellers and restaurateurs who made the downtown economy thrive--who lost the most from Solidere's bizarre marriage of private capital and Soviet-style forced land collectivization.

And it's important to remember that for most of his political life, until Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, Hariri maintained excellent relations with the hegemon next door. During his days of complicity with Syrian domination over Lebanon, Hariri was more than willing to allow the Syrian regime's apparatchiks to attack his critics. Consider the case of Muhamad Mugraby, a human rights lawyer who represented the families of Lebanese citizens disappeared into Syrian jails.

Mugraby's father was one of the many small-business owners whose businesses had been demolished by Hariri's bulldozers, his little shops--vegetable stands, coffeehouses, butchers and other quintessentially Beiruti small businesses that had supported the family comfortably for decades--valued, he says, at a mere $20,000. Mugraby decided to fight back. He took on the cases of downtown property owners, including an elderly woman who he says was dragged out of her home by police so Solidere could demolish it; she died less than a month later, of what geriatric medical experts would refer to as "transfer trauma" and Mugraby calls "a broken heart."

Mugraby's troubles began when he questioned the murky legal authority of Solidere's special appraisal committees, headed by judges, set up to determine the value of people's property. While they issued legally binding decisions, they operated outside the judicial system's jurisdiction--effectively an extrajudicial court, indirectly underwritten by Solidere, whose decisions downtown property owners could not appeal. If that sounds uncomfortably close to "special military tribunal," it gets better. In October 1999, Mugraby denounced Solidere's indirect payment of the judges as a conflict of interest that influenced them to undervalue certain properties. When he expanded his crusade against corrupt judges, the Syrian-controlled judiciary struck back: He was accused of "dishonoring" the judiciary, banned from practicing law and thrown in jail.

Mugraby believes his persecution was punishment for his defense of downtown property owners. "They resented me very, very strongly," he says. "I'm sorry for that; I had nothing personal for or against Mr. Hariri."

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Bar Association all denounced the charges against Mugraby. Even the Wall Street Journal weighed in. Within Lebanon, however, many human rights activists kept silent: After what had happened to Mugraby, not to mention the Ayads, no one dared to go up against Hariri or his Syrian backers.

But if the Lebanese had to hide their anger, they felt it all the more. "It may now be that the city belongs to Solidere," said one furious critic, "but in twenty years' time its inhabitants will reclaim it."

On December 1, when Hezbollah and its allies flooded downtown Beirut, the statue of Riad Al-Solh, Lebanon's fez-wearing first prime minister, peered out from its pedestal in what could only have been bemusement: In his day, the Shiites knew their place, and it wasn't the capital. People traded text messages joking that the statue had miraculously come to life in order to hold its nose; another urged people to rally round their "beloved Virgin"--not the mother of Christ but the Megastore. "They're so grungy," sniffed one Western journalist, rolling her eyes at the protesters. "I just hope they don't mess up downtown."

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