Shadow of Hariri looms large over Lebanon's isolation

Lebanon faces the biggest threat to its stability since the end of the civil war, writes Michael Karam.

September will mark the 19th anniversary of the arrival on the political scene of Rafik Hariri, a man who back then was the almost mythical billionaire from Sidon with a reputation for getting things done. AP Photo
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I was originally going to write about insider trading after overhearing a conversation at a funeral last week, during which a banker was advising the son of the deceased to consider playing the Beirut Stock Exchange. "It's a quick way to turn around a quick US$5,000 [Dh18,365] every so often," he assured him. Unaccustomed to the dizzy world of finance, the young man was sceptical. Surely there was risk? "Not if you have someone on the inside," said our man. Everyone nodded. Yes, they all agreed, one had to have "someone".

But then that idea dried up. The recently released Cellular competition intensity index looked like promising grist for the columnist's mill. It ranks Lebanon last among the 19 Arab countries. But we Lebanese know all this and don't even blink when our monthly mobile phone bill is way higher than that of, not only a Kuwaiti, Emirati or a Saudi, but also of a Londoner. So, I figured, no story there.

One genuine development was the announcement that in September we will have third-generation, or 3G, internet connectivity, a move that one telecommunications executive claimed would revolutionise the economy (and allow me to enjoy YouTube in all its uninterrupted glory). If it were true, it would certainly lift us off the bottom of speedtest.net's league tables, which this year ranked us last in download speed and second-to-last in upload speed. Even the Afghans have faster internet.

But all this is irrelevant while Lebanon faces the biggest threat to its stability since the end of the civil war. Last week's indictments, handed down to four Hizbollah members by the chief prosecutor of the special tribunal for Lebanon (STL), was not the anticlimax we were all expecting, and the prime minister Najib Mikati is under extreme pressure from the opposition March 14 bloc to back all international commitments and resolutions on Lebanon, including the STL, or step aside.

It is an increasingly common ultimatum in these parts but, given that on Saturday Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah secretary general, said he would never allow his men to be turned in "not in 30 days, and not in 300 years", it is one that gives him little wiggle room.

To make matters worse, it has not been a good year for the economy. The tourist season has been virtually written off by the double whammy of a high-season Ramadan and unrest in neighbouring Syria. Now Lebanon faces isolation from the international community. Add to the mix the simmering tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities, a state of affairs already magnified by the Syria crisis, and suddenly from being the most stable country of the so-called Arab Spring, Lebanon has jumped to the front of the queue and threatens once again to become the violent prism through which the Middle East is viewed.

And all because of one man, whose influence has cast a shadow in one way or another over the country for nigh on 20 years. September, the month in which we are supposed to get super-fast internet, will mark the 19th anniversary of the arrival on the political scene of Rafik Hariri, a man who back then was the almost mythical billionaire from Sidon with a reputation for getting things done.

Back then, Lebanon was in a pitiful state. People sat around in darkness and paid for goods with wads of 1,000 pound (Dh2.40) and 500 pound notes. In February 1992 the US dollar cost 800 pounds. By September the price had nudged 3,000 pounds. Enter Hariri and almost overnight the dollar parachuted down to the 1,500 mark, where it has remained, albeit artificially, ever since.

Hariri rolled up his sleeves and set about Lebanon like a man possessed. As the years passed, his name became synonymous with unstoppable wealth and huge projects. In darker corners there were mutterings of his trying to "buy the country" but the reality was that had there been no Hariri, there was no one else standing in the wings with his vision, his muscle and his phone book. We felt the economic dynamism when Hariri rode into town, which is more than can be said for any other Lebanese leader in recent memory.

The dynamism has evaporated and we sit waiting to see if the government will thumb its nose at the international community. In a column in this newspaper last week, the American journalist Charles Glass asked: "How long will Lebanon's bankers and merchants, who include as many Shia as Sunnis and Christians, tolerate international isolation before banding together to demand that Hizbollah comply [with the tribunal]?"

After listening to Mr Nasrallah's speech, they will have their work cut out. Unlike those who play the stock market, they don't have someone on the inside.

Michael Karam is a communication and publishing consultant based in Beirut