The Hariri Assassination and the Revolution That Never Was

The 2005 Valentine’s Day killing of Lebanon's former premier ushered in a new era. For many Lebanese, it marked a political awakening and, ultimately, a disappointment

The Hariri Assassination and the Revolution That Never Was
Lebanese protesters carry banners and flags in Beirut’s Martyrs Square on March 14, 2005, one month to the day after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)

Every Lebanese remembers where they were when Rafik Hariri was killed. I was in the middle of a meeting with a client when one of my colleagues burst into the room and shouted, “They killed Hariri!” I walked out of the meeting, of course, and the rest of the workday was spent huddled with colleagues watching Al Jazeera in a trance around the company television set.

At that time, on Feb. 14, 2005, I had recently moved from my hometown of Beirut to take a job in advertising in Dubai. Like quite a few Lebanese, I had always been a political person. I’d participated in the country’s “underground” activism in the early 2000s, during the Syrian occupation of my country. Although I opted to join many other Lebanese in the material comfort and stability of the Gulf, I was never at peace with its apolitical character or with being separated from the intrigue and high stakes of Lebanese political life.

Hariri’s murder derailed my plans to build a new life in the Gulf and, as for many others of my generation, had a pivotal influence on me. I am not at all sure what my subsequent life would have looked like without it. I might still be in Dubai selling ads. As it happened, I was swept up in the outrage around the mass murder of 22 people that day in my city, very close to the streets where I was born, grew up, studied and discovered my obsession with politics.

For many of my generation, growing up in post–civil war Lebanon in the 1990s, the most salient fact of political life was Lebanon’s long occupation by Syria’s Assad regime. It was more salient still for Rafik Hariri. Twice elected prime minister with Syrian approval, Hariri was then killed amid growing difficulties in his relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in both Syria and Lebanon. The developments leading up to his murder are long and complicated but, in essence, Hariri — a proud, ambitious and wealthy man with powerful friends — saw himself as a political juggernaut in Lebanon as well as internationally. While he had had a working relationship with the elder President Hafez al-Assad and his lieutenants, his relationship with the son Bashar (who took over Syria’s Lebanon “portfolio” in 1998) grew strained. Hariri was increasingly desperate to outfox Bashar’s attempts to cut down the influence he had built in Lebanon and abroad. He was undeterred by intelligence about threats to his life and an actual assassination attempt against a political ally just weeks before his own murder. Early in 2005, Hariri began to make clear publicly his intention to challenge the Syrian order in Lebanon, and started constructing a cross-sectarian alliance of Lebanese elites to that end. He was killed shortly thereafter.

Many years later, a U.N. tribunal in the Netherlands’ Leidschendam would finally convict a handful of Lebanese Hezbollah operatives for the killing, but at the time few believed anyone in Syria-controlled Lebanon would kill a figure as large as Hariri without Assad’s direction or endorsement. Nor did Hariri’s assassination take place in a vacuum. For years, many Lebanese of various sectarian affiliations had chafed under the corruption and violence of the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies. The regime had run Lebanon as both an organized criminal enterprise and a proxy front line against Israel, via Hezbollah. While Hariri himself was not universally loved, resentment toward the status quo had been growing across sectarian lines. He found allies in the traditional politicians of Lebanon and their constituencies. All agreed that the Syrian occupation, once tolerable within certain rules of the game, had become a threat to the political, economic and security interests of much of the Lebanese political class and their core followers.

Amidst the corruption and general drift toward thuggery in day-to-day Lebanese life, more and more ordinary citizens resented the Syrian presence. Its impact was felt beyond high politics. The regime harassed journalists, threatened teachers and even interfered in student elections. They made sure to claim a generous cut of Lebanon’s post–civil war economic boom, including funds allocated for reconstruction and commerce. Nothing was too petty. In one absurd incident, a fight broke out at a university rugby game I was playing in. Fights in rugby games are not unusual but, this time, one of the opponents was closely connected to Syrian intelligence. No one was seriously harmed on the field, but as soon as the game was over a fleet of tinted SUVs drove into the university. They shut the university gate — the American University of Beirut, no less — and explained that no one was going anywhere until the person who’d first laid hands on the connected player identified himself. They bundled my hapless teammate into a car and drove away. He turned up a few days later with no visible injuries, so I did not ask him what had happened to him during his kidnapping.

Others were more visibly scarred. One friend of mine flipped off a driver in a small convoy that was driving obnoxiously near our university. In Beirut this is a somewhat risky but usually harmless move, yet he had missed the Syrian license plates, and the convoy turned out to be transporting none other than Bashar al-Assad’s cousin. My friend was dragged out of his car and knocked out with a rifle butt to the head.

Convoys are always a potential problem. One official convoy destroyed my own car when the lead driver ran a red light in the downtown district. Though the clearly well-connected gentleman in the silver BMW 7-series slapped his own driver for inconveniencing him (he and his backseat entourage had evidently been enjoying themselves), he never acknowledged my existence, and the convoy drove away. A local policeman who had seen the whole thing helpfully advised me to let the matter go.

Incidents of this kind were so common that they felt totally unremarkable, but they illustrated the gratuitous indignities of the occupation.

Yet the people most affected were, predictably, those who decided to make an issue of it and enter the inhospitable world of Lebanese opposition politics — people such as myself and many of my friends. While a handful of Lebanese politicians in exile backed the anti-Syrian cause verbally, the burden of actual activism fell to the young Lebanese whose sensitivity or bitter experiences led us to confront the overwhelming might of the Syrian and Lebanese security services. This was a losing battle, of course, and the outcome was repeatedly and inevitably the detention, humiliation, torture and occasional murder of the activists.

But it was in this rather small movement that some of us found our political home. It may have been a hopeless cause, but there weren’t many alternatives other than apathy. The Lebanese political establishment would not confront the Assad regime, since its members had no desire to be killed, and some even owed their positions to Syria. Despite his eventual murder, Hariri and his party had not participated in the Lebanese opposition until the eleventh hour. Hariri had, indeed, been the face of the establishment for years. Many have forgotten that Hariri had no stomach for a fight with Damascus (and was not a confrontational figure in general) until his final days, when he correctly calculated that no amount of appeasing Assad would buy him meaningful political autonomy. This was the context of his killing.

On hearing of Hariri’s assassination, which we immediately blamed on the Syrian regime, my colleagues and I were outraged (there was a healthy contingent of Lebanese expatriates in our Dubai office). Little did we imagine, however, that his murder would lead to anything more than the usual pointless, isolated underground activism. I myself had no intention of participating in anything and certainly did not expect a revolution. Indeed, no sooner had the flames in the bomb crater died down than Lebanese security forces began to erase evidence at the scene of the crime, blatantly bulldozing areas of the blast site in full public view — a reflection of their infiltration by Syrian regime allies. Business as usual.

Soon, however, small sporadic protests began to pop up in Beirut’s downtown district, especially near Parliament and the seat of the cabinet. Lebanon’s Syrian-appointed government and security forces warned demonstrators against disturbing the public peace — more of the doublespeak that had become commonplace. There was every reason to take such threats seriously, however, since powerful people had just killed someone with a much higher public profile than a few agitated Lebanese citizens. Still, the demonstrations continued and soon drew several thousand protestors, who began to call for the pro-Syrian cabinet’s resignation, the end of the Syrian security forces’ presence in Lebanon and an investigation into Hariri’s assassination.

Like many expatriates watching a great political drama unfold at home, I felt guilt and shame for being away. Dubai, with its sterile, depoliticized newness, felt like an absurd place to park myself and watch this all play out. I had left Lebanon convinced it was irredeemable and its status quo unshakable after the bitterness and hopelessness I had experienced there. But now, I wondered whether this was arrogant presumption and defeatism on my part. I felt like a coward, sitting in my suit at the ad agency, while people risked their lives. I took a week off and booked my ticket to Beirut against entirely reasonable objections from my family.

The atmosphere in Beirut was electric.

Since the Arab Spring of 2011, we have become accustomed to the spectacle of people in the region demonstrating against corrupt and repressive Arab regimes (and, sadly, accustomed to the violence that often greets them). It is easy to forget now that our generation had no living memory of any such thing and no blueprint whatsoever for how to navigate, strategize or feel about such upheavals.

I will not say too much about my personal experience as a protester because, since then, countless other Arabs have been brutalized and murdered, and I am just fine. But I do want to try to capture the sentiment and expectations of the moment. I joined the first of a few localized anti-regime protests in downtown Beirut on a Friday night, having gotten my hands on a large Lebanese flag that enterprising Lebanese had begun to churn out en masse somewhere. My main feeling was terror. There was no reason to believe we wouldn’t be harmed or killed. My dread grew as we approached the Parliament. I am positive that I would have run away, but there were a handful of hecklers on the sidelines whose apparent job was to call us cowards, among more colorful things, for showing hesitation. To this day I have no idea who these people were or where they had picked up this strategy, but it worked. No one fled.

No one was shot either. The security forces had seemingly evaporated. And the demonstrations continued to escalate. The pro-Syrian cabinet resigned, but still the number of protestors grew to tens of thousands. Significantly, it was clear that they included persons from across partisan lines and religious sects. Many Lebanese politicians closed ranks against the assassination, and so did their partisans in the protests: followers of rivals Rafik Hariri, Michel Aoun, Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea and other household names. I do not wish to romanticize the situation, but this did make for compelling imagery and symbolism, which was captured in thousands of photographs: the Bible and Quran, Muslims and Christians praying together, oceans of Lebanese flags — all united by resentment toward the ugly status quo and the crime of the assassination. Initially, this movement called itself the “Independence Intifada,” but later a U.S. official dubbed it the “Cedar Revolution,” a moniker that I considered cringeworthy, but which eventually stuck in Arabic as well.

To be sure, this was intoxicating stuff for a country emerging from decades of civil war and political violence. Even older generations who had seen plenty of ugliness praised the movement’s diversity and nonviolent character. So it was understandable that we failed to heed the warning signs that quickly emerged, including the enormous mass counter-protest organized by Hezbollah and other allies of Syria on March 8, 2005, less than a month after Hariri’s killing. They were completely at odds with our movement’s demands for Syria to leave Lebanon. In fact, the “March 8” movement (as it came to be known) saw our demands as a front for a pro-Western camp that would eventually disarm Hezbollah. Hezbollah even thanked Bashar al-Assad for his regime’s role in Lebanon.

Clearly, we were not the only Lebanese who had strong feelings about the country’s political trajectory. The March 8 protests highlighted the political fault lines that would deeply divide Lebanese through the years to come, between a pro-Hezbollah (and pro-Assad) camp and its opponents. The divide was further deepened by its sectarian dimension, with March 8 drawing support largely (though not exclusively) from Lebanon’s Shiite population and the opposite camp made up of Hariri’s Sunni Muslim coreligionists, certain Christian factions and the small but important Druze sect.

Of course, we had no patience with what we saw as Hezbollah’s selfish concerns (although they had reason to be worried). It all seemed so parochial, reactive and out of touch in the heady climate of the Cedar Revolution. However, the “March 8” protest was much larger than anything we had organized, and its size and the brazenness of its message proved hugely provocative to many Lebanese citizens and politicians alike, fusing Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in their minds. As a result, six days later, on March 14, the uprising mobilized what was then easily the largest protest in Lebanese history, with several hundred thousand converging on Beirut’s public spaces.

Of course, gauging national politics by counting protestors in a place as complicated as Lebanon is tricky. Nevertheless, this “March 14” protest movement had clearly grown very large indeed and encompassed people and parties from across geographic and sectarian lines. This gave us participants a sense of euphoria and a high degree of confidence, helped along by the protest’s relatively clear and simple goals: The Syrian regime had to leave Lebanon; its Lebanese lackeys had to leave power; the Lebanese state should have a monopoly on its own military force and Hariri’s killers should be punished. To us, the alliance seemed unshakable and the goals self-evidently righteous.

As the protests grew, I decided to become a part-time agitator of sorts, drawing a nice paycheck in Dubai during the week and playing revolutionary in Beirut on weekends. My attempt to reconcile these two lives failed, of course, and something had to give. I was single, I had no children and I had no obvious reason to think responsibly about my own future. I decided I was done with advertising and my new career would be in politics, or policy, or something. I had some abstract notion of how I would study these things and use that knowledge to help my country. I was saved from more serious career planning by the rapid escalation of the situation in Lebanon, which consumed the next few months of my life. I felt vindicated when, after 29 years, the Syrian military unceremoniously withdrew from Lebanon on April 30, amid growing demonstrations and international pressure.

The Cedar Revolution honeymoon did not last. Although the “March 14” alliance of politicians won control of Parliament, an assassination campaign targeting its politicians and intellectuals made its control over formal institutions irrelevant (violence had often been more meaningful than electoral politics). In 2006, a decent military performance by Hezbollah against a pointless Israeli military campaign further boosted that party’s confidence and popularity. Hezbollah and its allies then staged a prolonged sit-in in downtown Beirut against the cabinet, freezing politics and decimating the local economy.

Finally, in 2008, the charade of politics ended altogether with Hezbollah’s takeover of much of Beirut, in response to a government attempt to dismantle Hezbollah’s illegal fiber optics network, forcing a humiliating capitulation by the March 14 cabinet. Hezbollah’s May 2008 takeover of Beirut, which not only killed dozens but had rival politicians begging the militia to spare them, demonstrated the true balance of forces in Lebanon. It also drove home its intended intimidation and humiliation of the residents of Beirut, who could scarcely fathom that their neighborhoods had come under direct Hezbollah control. This was one of the few events I never quite came to terms with as a Beiruti who loved the mad city dearly.

We were beaten. After 2008, it was no longer meaningful to speak of a March 14 coalition, and Hezbollah would capitalize on its military adventure to acquire a guaranteed veto power in the cabinet. In the coming years, Hezbollah and Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the late Rafik) made peace, facilitating a broader agreement between Lebanese elites to divide the country’s political and economic spoils. As the ultimate humiliation, Saad Hariri was forced to accept that he had little leverage and that his political ambitions in Lebanon required a visit to Damascus in 2009 to shake the hand of Bashar al-Assad, the very man he had accused of killing his father. Not only were the Cedar Revolution and March 14 movement dead — it was also no longer possible to discern any meaningful rivalry in Lebanese politics. The cynicism of this dealmaking and the consolidation of rampant corruption would eventually lead to a very different popular uprising in 2019.

The Cedar Revolution and its fate were profoundly formative experiences for my generation of Lebanese. I admit they had a darkening and disheartening effect on my political outlook. I would never again feel fully confident about any cause. I had learned to doubt my own judgment and had come to terms with the unfairness of the world. But what had actually gone wrong? And what had we done wrong?

Obviously, the movement failed in part because its opponents were willing and able to maim and kill its leaders and supporters. This instilled frustration and humiliation that demoralized the movement and clouded its leaders’ political judgment. Although some March 14 supporters felt the other side deserved to lose people as well, the movement’s elite could not or would not stoop to the level of opponents, and it remained nonviolent. On the one hand, this led to a great deal of frustration among us as the one-sided killings continued. On the other hand, had the movement resorted to murders, I would not have seen it as a cause worth fighting for.

Additionally, and despite its noble goals, which I do not disavow, the Cedar Revolution was undeniably a partisan movement conceived by political elites, and therefore not really a “people’s revolution” at all. To be fair, March 14 did not claim to be totally nonpartisan; it was a political coalition of Lebanese elites and their supporters alongside unaffiliated Lebanese who shared a dislike for the Syrian regime and distrusted Hezbollah. Without the broad popularity of these parties among Lebanese citizens, we would never have inspired hundreds of thousands to take to the streets in protest. However they felt about Syria, these people would not have taken the potentially fatal risk of protesting without numerical strength or political cover.

In fact, many of them would not have cared in the first place had they not received, effectively, an order by their leaders to hit the streets. Without Lebanese partisan politics, there would not have been a Cedar Revolution. But these elites were not able to lead a revolution that cut across all social and political lines or build a coalition for a fair and prosperous Lebanon.

Indeed, the end result was a new coalition of elites, this time with Hezbollah as a partner in crime.

Today, a new generation of Lebanese activists have launched their own movement. In 2019, they protested Lebanon’s abysmal governance, corruption and economic performance. A modest number of them were later elected to Parliament. In our conversations, some of them go so far as to say that Hezbollah is nothing more than a better-armed faction of the same corrupt, sectarian political elite, and they criticize people (like me) for having obsessed over disarming Hezbollah’s militia. They have a point. Lebanon’s political elite is “poison,” and it ultimately made its peace with Hezbollah to survive. But then I remember that good governance is not what our movement was about. We saw the Cedar Revolution as a response to an emergency: foreign occupation, militias, the cruel and open-ended violence of Lebanese politics. Governance, development and economics were all seen as basically unattainable in the absence of basic sovereignty. There was no way to liberate the country without elite politics.

There is a new revolutionary movement in Lebanon now. Unlike ours, it is an anti-regime movement, relying on grassroots rather than elite support. Its slogan is “killon yaani killon” — “all of them means all of them,” lumping together Lebanon’s entire political establishment, across all sects, as the enemy. There is no place in this worldview for a March 8 or March 14, since they are both different variations of the same problem. The fact that Hezbollah runs its own foreign policy, fights wars as it pleases, and kills its opponents is acknowledged but not quite central. This viewpoint grows out of the issues that animate the new opposition: corruption, parochialism, sectarianism and the looting of the collapsing Lebanese economy. Activists in this movement concede that Hezbollah is better at being a predatory and corrupt sectarian faction, but say it still has serious competition from the same players who took to the streets on March 14 and led the protests after Hariri’s killing. In this view, Hezbollah is merely the praetorian guard of the rotten Lebanese system, and its supposed (historic) enemies are actually its partners.

There is a lot of truth to the idea that all Lebanese factions are complicit in the country’s ongoing tragedy and that sectarian politics cannot be a vehicle for good governance. Perhaps that generalization applies to liberation movements as well. After we brought down the cabinet in 2005, many of us thought it was obvious that we should go after the president next — a Syrian lackey who was implicated in some of the occupation’s worst abuses. President Emile Lahoud had no popular base or redeeming qualities, so I was shocked to hear some fellow-protestors threaten to defect if we tried to remove him. Some argued that the presidency, traditionally reserved for Christians, symbolized the Lebanese Christians’ stake in Lebanon’s leadership; thus, in these Christians’ view, removing even a hated symbol of the occupation (which arguably harmed Christians more than any other sect) would set a dangerous precedent.

And so it was that the symbol of the occupation was spared the wrath of our liberation movement and allowed to spend much of the rest of his term swimming at his favorite country club. No one wanted to split the movement’s ranks or alienate an entire Lebanese sect. Although particularly egregious, this was not the only time the country’s traditional leadership or its followers drew sectarian lines in this manner. Later efforts to remove the traditionally Sunni prime minister would draw the same knee-jerk response from coreligionists. What hope could a national liberation movement have if its leaders and followers alike would not remove the leader we all considered to be an enemy of the people? This particular incident has stayed with me, a potent reminder of the limits of activism from within a rotten social and political fabric.

The Cedar Revolution was not a revolution. The components for launching a revolution just weren’t there. But it changed Lebanon forever. I think it was worthwhile. It accomplished a few important things and taught us all some hard lessons about the promise and tragedy of politics. Today, it falls to a new generation of Lebanese to take on the perilous work of real opposition politics and actual revolution in a Lebanon that may be free of the Syrian occupation, but is sadly worse off in many other ways.

I am old enough now to have witnessed the rise of an entirely new generation of Lebanese activism and opposition politics. Its grievances are absolutely valid and its efforts valiant. Yet, to me, opposition activism feels like a young person’s game, requiring commitment and idealism (and time) that I will not pretend to have anymore. I live in America now, but still visit Lebanon regularly and pay attention to its politics. I am engaged in the Washington policy debate on Lebanon and, of course, I still write about the place. But these are attempts to influence events from the margins. They do not compare to what we accomplished — and failed to accomplish — after Hariri’s murder.

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