Sect Symbols

Sect Symbols

To understand why the playground of Beirut has again become a battleground, look beyond the myth-making biographies of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


For most Westerners, the words “downtown Beirut” conjure up two distinct images: a farrago of bullet-scarred buildings, car bombs and machine-gun-toting militiamen, and a glitzy, picturesque pedestrian mall. Nobody remembers Wadi Abu Jamil, the old Jewish quarter of downtown Beirut, a warren of winding alleys, antique Ottoman and French Mandate houses, and a lonely crumbling synagogue. By the mid-1990s, it was home to everything the Lebanese government would rather forget. Most of those who lived there were Shiites from the south of Lebanon, routed from their homes by the Israeli occupation and shunted into the neglected neighborhood by a city that didn’t want them.

But somebody wanted Wadi Abu Jamil. Solidere, the private company that had the contract to rebuild the city center, was determined to raze the old downtown by any means necessary. So when the Ayad family refused to leave their home in February 1996, Solidere dispatched a crew of Syrian and Egyptian guest workers to begin tearing down the four-story building–with the family still inside. As the laborers began to dismantle the building, not surprisingly it collapsed. Seven workmen and six of the Ayads, including a 2-year-old boy and a 3-month-old baby, were crushed to death by the march of reconstruction.

Rafik Hariri, the billionaire prime minister who founded Solidere, expressed his “sorrow” while attending a banquet at a five-star Beirut hotel. “This incident has shaken the hearts of all of us,” he assured the grandees at the banquet, promising to conduct an investigation, punish those responsible and guarantee the “rights of the innocent.” Predictably, Hariri’s foes, the Shiite political parties Amal and Hezbollah, made a great show of wanting justice for the Ayads–mainly to squeeze more money from Hariri. But in Lebanon, the innocent have few rights; and so Solidere continued its mass clearance, bulldozing neighborhoods and critics alike until barely a memory of either was left.

You won’t find a whisper of this tragedy in the paeans to Beirut’s resurrection that parade with fulsome predictability through Western newspapers. Nor will you read about it in the bushel of biographies published in the two years since Hariri’s assassination, or the buckets of glowing travel-brochure prose about Lebanon’s post-civil war revival. In these accounts, a simplistic narrative dominates: a wounded city healed, rebuilt by a savvy, big-hearted tycoon who transformed a war-ravaged capital into a gleaming tourist hub before his dramatic assassination on February 14, 2005; followed by the peaceful “cedar revolution,” which ousted Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. The phoenix works overtime in this version of events; and if you had a dollar for every time the old “Paris of the Middle East” shibboleth rears its head, you’d feel almost as rich as Hariri himself.

The problem with this confectionary tale is that it does almost nothing to explain why downtown Beirut is today the center of a battle for the future of Lebanon, a brewing proxy war for the soul of the Middle East–and for America’s tarnished image abroad. To understand why the playground of downtown Beirut has become a battleground once again, you have to look past the glittering surfaces of its luxury stores, past the pretty flags and banners of the so-called cedar revolution. The secret history of downtown Beirut and the man who rebuilt it is more complicated than the fairy tale; because it doesn’t go down as smoothly, and is not as easy to report, it remains largely untold. Which is a shame, because compared with the fable, it’s every bit as much of a thriller.

After the explosion that shook Beirut on February 14, 2005, crowds of soldiers, policemen and bodyguards gathered around the huge crater punched in the road by approximately one ton of TNT, dragging charred bodies from flaming cars. “This is the car of the big man! The big man!” one of the rescuers shouted over and over again, with hoarse anguish, pointing to Hariri’s blackened Mercedes. The news anchor at Future TV, the television branch of Hariri’s media empire, wept as she read the news: The big man was dead.

The ex-prime minister was burned to an unrecognizable cinder, but in Killing Mr Lebanon, Beirut-based journalist Nicholas Blanford tells us how one of his bodyguards, Abed Arab, identified the big man’s body by looking at the hand that Hariri had once magnanimously allowed him to kiss: “It’s the fingernails that give it away. An image of Hariri…flashes into his mind. It was November 1, the boss’s birthday. Abu Tarek [Hariri’s chief bodyguard] asked [Arab] if he would kiss Hariri’s hand as a gesture of respect. Hariri didn’t like offering his hand to anyone, but Arab was different. He was family. Hariri had sat on the sofa and raised his hand. Arab took it and kissed it. It was an intensely personal moment. And now here he was sitting in the back of an ambulance before this ruined corpse whose clean, neatly clipped fingernails were the same as those he had kissed three months earlier.”

If this sounds embarrassingly feudal–the faithful retainer agog with gratitude at being permitted to kiss his lordship’s hand–it’s a sadly accurate depiction of Lebanese politics. Lebanon’s government is still heavily stacked with hereditary clan chieftains known as zaims, defined by Michael Johnson in his excellent sociological study of the Lebanese civil war, All Honourable Men: The Social Origins of War in Lebanon, as “powerful parliamentarians who operated as patriarchal political bosses.” A zaim is a feudal warlord, a political patron and a party machine boss all rolled into one: a big man. The zaims have dominated Lebanese politics, by virtue of their last names (Gemayel, Jumblatt, Franjieh, Arslan) and little else, for centuries.

The irony is that “Mr. Lebanon,” the big man who came to define his country to those outside it, wasn’t one of them. Hariri was the son of a Sunni fruit picker from the southern port city of Sidon, a nobody from a family of unknowns. Leaders love to boast about their humble origins, but in Lebanon’s tribal kakistocracy, for a peasant to ascend as far as a Parliament seat is still rare. For such a man to become a successful prime minister was almost unthinkable.

Hariri followed the path to success trod by so many young Lebanese: exile. In Saudi Arabia, his talent for getting construction projects done in record time made him a favorite of the royal family. As the desert kingdom’s envoy to Lebanon, Hariri funneled cash and diplomacy to various parties during the fifteen-year civil war, all the while waiting patiently for his prize: Lebanon’s reconstruction contract.

In 1989, toward the end of the civil war, Hariri helped broker a summit in the Saudi resort town of Taif, where he had built a luxury hotel for his royal patrons. In the resulting Taif Accord (which some even claim Hariri wrote himself), the various warlords who had spent the past fourteen years butchering other Lebanese granted each other immunity, an act of collective amnesia that set the tone for the country’s postwar orgy of forgetting. Accountability, truth and reconciliation, restitution or even acknowledgment of crimes committed–none of these were invited to Taif. Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad, an American ally at the time, had killed thousands of his own people and countless Lebanese (including at least some of the 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared during the civil war, their bodies never found). But with Saudi and American blessings, the Taif Accord installed the Syrian regime as the occupying power charged with Lebanon’s postwar “security.”

For a country sick to death of warlords, Hariri seemed like a godsend. Here, at last, was a man with no blood on his hands; where others sprayed bullets, he spread the soothing salve of Saudi cash. Unlike the landed zaims, who mainly helped their co-religionists, Hariri made charitable donations that crossed sectarian lines. His Hariri Foundation, established in 1979, gave out tuition loans for young Lebanese students. Over the next twenty years, he subsidized the education of 35,000 young students regardless of sect–in a tiny country like Lebanon, a significant chunk of a generation’s youth.

And so by the time he became prime minister, in 1992, Hariri was immensely popular. When he proposed a dramatic renovation of Beirut’s old downtown, using a private company with sweeping powers to expropriate land from its owners, he had the backing of most of the country’s financial and intellectual elite. In 1995 writer Philip Khoury gushed that “investment in Solidere more closely represents a wager on a country than an investment in a company.” To be against Hariri, then, was to be against Lebanon itself. The young man from the hinterlands had become the country’s biggest zaim.

Instead of letting the rebuilding founder amid the factional infighting and corruption that curse the Lebanese state to this day, Hariri proposed an alternative: A private company, not subject to civil-service hiring requirements, would use the authority of the state to seize several hundred acres of privately owned land. Freed from the shackles of bureaucracy, this new company would revitalize the shellshocked old city center. And if the 20,000 or so souls who lived or owned land downtown were upset at being forced to render it up, the company had a plan for them: The value of their claims would be determined by special committees–paid for, indirectly, by Solidere–that would award them compensation in the form of Solidere stock. If Kenneth Lay had been governor of Texas and granted Enron sweeping powers to seize Texans’ homes and land, giving the homeowners nothing but Enron stock in return, it would have been something like Solidere.

To call Solidere’s contract a sweetheart deal is like calling Enron a troubled company. Hariri was a major shareholder in Solidere, whose board of directors included his lawyer, his past and present employees and reportedly his Saudi business associates; at the same time, he was also the prime minister of the government that granted Solidere this extraordinary power to seize other people’s private land. The deal was negotiated between Hariri’s company, Hariri’s government and one of Hariri’s former employees, who was head of Lebanon’s reconstruction authority. “One can thus assume that these ‘negotiations’ took place in a rather cordial atmosphere,” Reinoud Leenders dryly notes in his forthcoming book Divided We Rule: Reconstruction, Institution Building and Corruption in Post-War Lebanon. This well-sourced and painstakingly footnoted investigation reveals how Solidere reaped millions (and possibly billions) that should have swelled the coffers of the Lebanese state–which today, with a rapidly rising $41 billion public debt, boasts one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world. Leenders–a former analyst for the International Crisis Group who teaches at the University of Amsterdam–combed through reams of financial reports and newspaper morgues in English, French and Arabic, carefully sifting through documents and depositions to critically evaluate the allegations of rampant corruption in Lebanon, including those about Hariri and Solidere. (Some of the most damning details in his book come from interviews with the company’s own officials.) The result is a devastating indictment of Solidere, and of the man who founded and effectively controlled it.

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.

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.”

In his seminal history of Lebanon, A House of Many Mansions, Kamal Salibi describes a country caught between two founding myths: a Sunni merchant republic tied to the Arab world through its great port cities and a Christian mountain stronghold protected by France. This dialectic between “Arabism” and “Lebanism” took many forms–East versus West, verticality (the mountains) versus horizontality (the sea)–but it was always conceived as a negotiation between Sunnis and Christians. “Lebanon’s ‘special identity’ had represented a compromise between the Maronite idea of the mountain and the Sunni heritage of the city,” writes Fouad Ajami in his luminous biography of Shiite cleric Musa al-Sadr, The Vanished Imam. “The Shia had to make their way between these two conceptions.”

When the French appended the mostly Shiite hinterland to the newly independent Lebanon in 1943, the Shiites’ numbers disrupted the delicate Muslim-Christian balance (Lebanon’s government has not conducted a census for seventy-five years, afraid of what it might find). But despite their numerical superiority (which some of their adversaries dispute to this day)–and perhaps also because of it–the Shiites were always perceived as an inconvenience, Persianized outsiders, intruders in their own country.

They felt it. And that feeling of mahroum–of deprivation and dispossession–found powerful outlets: first in the Communist and pan-Arabist ideologies of the 1960s; then in political groups like Musa al-Sadr’s Movement of the Deprived and its successor, the Amal Party; and eventually, after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in Hezbollah, which drew inspiration–and abundant support–from the Islamic Republic of Iran. With Iranian funding, the Party of God set up a parallel state that relieved the Lebanese government of much of its responsibility–military, financial and psychological–for its largest sect. They had their own clinics, their own schools and their own mosques, all in “their” neighborhoods. This autonomy came at a price: No matter how much power the Shiites attained, they were still unwanted, still the “grungy” peasants who belonged in the south or in “their” neighborhoods.

There was one place where everyone was welcome: downtown, especially the Bourj, as the central square was called (literally, it means “tower”). The Bourj was the vital center of Lebanon, the nodal point that linked the provinces to the capital and by extension to the rest of the world. Just as caravans connected to regional trade routes in the old preindustrial port city, the prewar downtown was a gathering place where all Lebanese could sample the pleasures of cosmopolitan life: They could watch movies, chase prostitutes, join in demonstrations, sell their tomatoes, buy used books or listen to a hakawati, a traditional Arabic storyteller, as Samir Khalaf writes in Heart of Beirut, a book infused with academic boosterism about the oppositional power of public space. (Khalaf teaches sociology at the American University of Beirut.) There were even informal coffee stands where Shiites from the villages along the Israeli border could congregate and drink coffee with other villagers, waiting for shared taxis to ferry them all back to their hometowns together.

The civil war, which turned downtown into the front line between rival militias, severed this artery connecting the hinterlands to the city. Instead of re-creating it, Hariri built something more exclusive: a playground for rich tourists, walled off from Lebanese hoi polloi by the plate glass barrier of money. Where Lebanese from all walks of life once bought secondhand clothes, luxury stores like La Perla now sold $100 thongs; instead of used textbooks, you could buy a Bang & Olufsen phone for $1,000. The new downtown still attracted visitors, but it filtered out the small-business owners and their customers, the unwashed masses whose “ominous influx,” as Khalaf xenophobically describes the post-civil war refugees, had threatened the capital’s delicate balance. Were it not for Solidere, sneered one of the company’s board members, downtown property owners might have turned the area into “a kind of mega-shanty town.”

Downtown is where all the fears and fantasies about this little country have always converged. You couldn’t find a better symbol of the old Sunni-Christian competition, for example, than the gigantic Mohammed al-Amin Mosque. Always controversial, it was opposed by Christians because it overshadowed nearby historic churches. Today, it squats at the apex of a triangle, a holy trinity of church, mosque and megastore. When Hariri was killed, his family decided to bury him downtown, in a parking lot between the mosque and the megastore. Hundreds of thousands of mourners congregated at the gravesite. The result was an extraordinary popular uprising against Syrian rule, a semipermanent sit-in that sprang up around the gravesite and spilled over into Martyrs’ Square, the historic agora where an Ottoman military ruler executed Lebanese nationalists in 1916. The “independence intifada” culminated on March 14, 2005 (not March 21, as Khalaf incorrectly dates it), in an enormous demonstration where hundreds of thousands of Lebanese cheered, waved flags and chanted, “Syria Out!”

The Western media made much of the demonstration’s multiconfessional nature, but there was one sect notably absent: Shiites, many of whom had attended a Hezbollah-led rally on March 8 in a neighboring section of downtown. For most Shiites, downtown Beirut–and the ruling coalition that would take its name from the March 14 rally–had become a symbol of everything from which they felt excluded. Last summer’s bloody war between Israel and Hezbollah, in which Israeli bombing leveled bridges, factories and entire villages, killing more than 1,000 Lebanese–mostly Shiite civilians–intensified the isolation of Lebanon’s largest sect.

The 2005 uprising forced Syria to withdraw its troops after twenty-nine years of military presence in Lebanon. But it also split the country into a new clash of paradigms. Lebanese alliances are notoriously unstable, shifting with the slightest wind of political change. Today, the Sunnis have joined hands with their old competitors among the Maronite zaims, as well as the Druse followers of the formerly anti-American Walid Jumblatt, all of whom now look to the United States and Saudi Arabia for protection.

Meanwhile, their Shiite countrymen have forged a temporary marriage with the Maronite Christian supporters of former army commander Michel Aoun, who fought against Syria during the civil war. The general, whose followers were a driving force behind the anti-Syrian uprising of 2005, has now joined forces with Hezbollah, a party backed by both Iran and Syria. The rallying cry of this new and vehemently anti-American opposition–uniting the militantly Shiite Party of God with the mostly Maronite Aounists–is the ruling coalition’s corruption and the country’s crushing public debt, inherited by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora from his mentor, Hariri.

Today, downtown Beirut is divided once again. In December Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, as well as some smaller parties, set up camp in the heart of Hariristan, and they have vowed to stay there until Siniora’s US-backed government steps down. Tent cities flowered overnight, each flying its own flag, subdividing Solidere’s sovereign territory into ever-smaller statelets: Hezbollahstan, Aounistan, Communistan. Across a border of concertina wire, Siniora hunkers in his office, the old Ottoman-era barracks known as the Grand Serail.

The summer’s war with Israel has politicized the postwar reconstruction of Lebanon once again, with money flowing in from various would-be patrons to repair the shattered infrastructure in exchange for political allegiance. Iran is pouring money into the Shiite south through Hezbollah; the United States and Gulf monarchies are lavishing funds on the Sunni-led government through a donor’s conference held in Paris. Once again, Lebanon’s political elite is poised to find salvation–and big, big money–in the reconstruction racket. And once again, Lebanon is facing the oldest, saddest choice in the modern Arab world: between undemocratic religious militants and a greedy, corrupt elite whose biggest selling point is its dubious ability to keep those militants at bay.

There was one man who might have resolved these competing visions of Lebanon: Hariri, who cultivated a close relationship with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Their friendship may surprise Westerners, especially as the Middle East sinks into Sunni-Shiite strife. But in Lebanon, it made perfect sense: Both were self-made zaims, powerful politicians, first among their equals. With Hariri around, Hezbollah would not have feared disarmament under Saudi and American pressure; and the Sunnis, with their powerful patriarch, would not have feared domination by the country’s Shiites. Were he alive today, Hariri might have fixed the problem, at least temporarily, the way he always did: with money.

In the end, Hariri was no worse than any of the crooks who compose Lebanon’s political class. In fact, his tragedy is precisely that he held so much promise to be different from the rest–few of them built anything enduring, however corruptly, or put kids through school–yet he ended up adopting their strong-arm ways. He outgrew his Syrian overlords and their Lebanese lackeys by beating them at their own game; and that, in the end, is very likely what killed him. He was a mythic figure, all right, as the books say. But by overlooking Solidere’s corruption and its state-sponsored thuggery, they rob Hariri’s story of its lurid greatness. Besides being more accurate, Hariri the big-hearted bandit is a much more interesting character than Hariri the martyr, the noble shaheed who gave his life to heal his war-torn country. Saints are boring; but as any Sopranos fan can tell you, a gangster who feels occasional flickers of conscience, sporadic signs of integrity, is a character well worth writing about. The book that would truly do Hariri justice would read less like a hagiography and more like the classic sagas of big-city political machines: Robert Caro’s portrait of power-mad master builder Robert Moses, The Power Broker; and two masterly biographies of Chicago’s legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, Mike Royko’s Boss and Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor’s American Pharaoh. Hariri had far more in common with Daley Senior–the Mubarak of the Midwest, father of its current mayor and the man who, for better and for worse, reshaped the city’s skyline and its politics–than the saintly statesman of popular myth. And despite his corruption, he held together a country that, without him, seems to be coming apart.

Beirutis have a saying about Hariri: Ammar hajar wa dammar bashar–he built the stones and destroyed the people. But my favorite obituary of Hariri is more charitable. It came from the mother of a friend of mine, an old woman who has seen decades of zaims, of warlords with the same last names, come and go. As we walked past the patch of seafront where the big man was killed, she shook her head. “Hariri kaan mujrim, allah yirhamu,” she sighed, with ironic resignation–Hariri was a criminal, may God have mercy on his soul.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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