Beirut, the morning after, Tuesday, 15 February 2005
Death of an entrepreneurial prime minister

It may be ironic that the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was blown up into pieces on Monday (February 14) right in front of the Saint-Georges hotel. Since the end of the fifteen-year civil war in the early 1990s, the hotel owner and staff of the Saint-Georges have been adamant that the then prime minister Hariri had an eye on their hotel, hence increasingly placing enormous pressures on their efforts of reconstruction by slowing down rehabilitation permits and the like. As a result, fifteen years after the end of the civil war, the hotel, which in the 1960s represented the height of Lebanese dolce vita life, is still a work-in-progress, with only the swimming-pool area open in the summer. Even though Hariri, since metamorphosing into a political icon by the end of the civil war, had over-protected himself rather well, his assassin(s) that early Monday afternoon had probably found in the work-in-progress Saint-Georges area a soft spot, which suited well for the devices that murdered Hariri and some of his entourage. By contrast, the finished projects on the Saint-Georges corniche—mostly luxurious hotels, restaurants, penthouses, and swimming pools—reflect well the kind of society that a billionaire entrepreneur like Hariri was promoting. A self-made man from a low-income southern family, Hariri began his career as a school teacher, and only made his fortune (estimated at close to $4 billion) once he moved to Saudi Arabia in the early 1970s, where entrepreneurial activities in the building sector pushed him into the ranks of the wealthy caste-like ruling class, and eventually secured him a Saudi citizenship. By the time Hariri decided for a comeback in the late 1980s, Beirut’s city-center was completely devastated, a sort of architectural, social and political vacuum which the likes of Hariri thought they could easily fill with entrepreneurial projects of their own design. A private company with the name of Solidere was devised from scratch, and whose main capital was the lands and buildings whose proprietors exchanged for Solidere stocks. In spite of a lousy beginning, the company managed rather well the city-center vacuum. But what the Solidere-cum-Hariri episode of the last decade points to, in spite of all the success in bringing foreign and local capital, and in spite of all the good taste in the rehabilitation and newly constructed projects, is that the city-center still lacks that badly needed cultural enthusiasm: spaces where people communicate, and are happy to be together by simply being there, that is, spaces of cultural representation and communication where social dynamisms and contradictions come side-by-side in an exercise of pure confrontation and giddiness.

The morning after the assassination, crowds were circling the newly damaged area. At the nearby two-tower Phoenicia hotel, and the other luxury hotels and restaurants, nearly every window and balcony were shattered. Hariri admirers and mourners, curious passersby, journalists, photographers and television crews, were all juxtaposed to one another in the middle of shattered glass and damaged cars. People not only felt trapped by Hariri’s sudden and tragic death, but also by the coldness of the sleek design of Beirut’s most luxurious hotel area. Whether they came on their own, or with family members, friends, or political colleagues, they were, indeed, alone—on their own. Maybe they were hoping that such tragic event would bring them together—at least for a moment. How come that in Georgia and the Ukraine people peacefully came together to topple dictatorial régimes? How come we’re unable to do what other republics of the now defunct Soviet régime did with a great deal of enthusiasm? Only few hundred meters further west, in the part of the corniche that goes back to the 1960s, and which was left undamaged during the war, do we begin to see a multiplicity of social functions and desires coming together: people from a multitude of social classes and neighborhoods coming for a walk, to rest, to eat or jog, or simply to observe one another. There’s no luxury in all this, but only a simple space open on the Mediterranean.

Crossing the city further south reveals other hidden social dynamisms. Between the devastated Palestinian camps and the Shi‘i Hezbollah controlled slums, different kind of markets have emerged. Streets without pavements, where mud mixes with large craters of garbage, and where every inch is occupied—either de facto or de jure—by self-imposed shops and ambulant stands. At the Palestinian camp of Sabra, one of those ambulant merchants, who sells pornographic stuff on CDs, told me that the volume of transactions on the main Sabra street exceeds $200,000 a day. In a savagely liberal capitalism of the kind adopted in Lebanon, and whose roots go back to the late Ottoman period, the entrepreneurial spirit excites even the poorest and most dispossessed, while ravaging their space. But between the luxurious north of the capital, where presumably 250 kilograms of explosives killed Hariri, and the slum neighborhoods of the south, not much unites people beyond that savage entrepreneurial capitalism, the kind of capitalism that is even more competitive than its American dreamlike business model: that is, without much of the juridical restrictions, the bill of rights, the robust political system, and the free press of its American counterpart, and without what one needs to feel at home with other fellow citizens—the system of representations that makes us part of a culture and a common language.

In a way similar to Italy's Berlusconi, the dismantlement of the party system in the wake of the end of both the Lebanese civil war and the cold war, has pushed the wealthiest man in the country for government. It is well known that the "free" entrepreneurial spirit is what effectively places Lebanon far ahead of its Arab neighbors—in particular Syria—even though those same neighbors, friends, and "brothers" have nothing much to envy Lebanon when it comes to artistic cultural production and the like. But even though cultural production has languished all over the Arab world—and Lebanon is no exception to such phenomenon—the Lebanese were smart enough at least to substitute the poverty of language with unconstrained bodily rituals. In short, it is Lebanese "superficiality" that survives well, and which spared the country the "seriousness" of the ideological trends of its Arab neighbors. Arab "tourists" therefore flock Lebanon in large numbers simply to "see" with their own eyes what an unfettered body is capable of. Even Hariri's massive wealth has added excitement to this general unrestrained atmosphere (at least by "brotherly" Arab standards). Now not only wealth and power have no limits, but they could be openly exhibited with no shame. It used to be, in the 1960s for instance, that a nice apartment on the Mediterranean provided enough status for its bearer. Not anymore: to the usual array of apartments, penthouses, seconday residences, sport cars and roovers, have been added private jets, swiss resorts, and above all the private bodyguards and all their entourage.

Already the 1980s—the darkest years of the civil war—have on their own begun to show the true face of Lebanese capitalism: a mafia like infrastructure, with secret Swiss bank accounts, massive real estate projects allegedly for purposes of money laundering, and the presence of bodyguards all over, whose numbers and shining car cortèges were never enough. But nothing was ever enough, as all limits have exploded. The end of the civil war (and the cold war) brought all such things to the surface, and, in the absence of juridical constraints, rendered them fully legitimate.

Today Hariri's body and those of his bodyguards peacefully lie on a land adjacent to the unfinished al-Amin mosque, which was hastily annexed to the compound in one of those last-minute real-estate deals that were Hariri's own trademarks. Located in the center-city Solidere area, this Ottoman like massive mosque projects an oppressive look on the area as-a-whole, as if delivering in one go what modern religion is all about. Hariri himself, who supervised the mosque's project until the very day of his assassination, kept, as a "secular" stateman, political and social ties with all kinds of groups, including the Syrians, now the prime suspects, the Hezbollah, and Christian extremists. He always thought that, in case of an imminent full Syrian withdrawal, he would be needed to pull all the strings together. But he surely couldn't have thought—even for a minute—that it would be his untimely death that would foster such a "nationalistic" movement.

copyright for text and images ©2005 by zouhair ghazzal