In February 1992, I arrived in Lebanon to begin a new life. The civil war had ended a year earlier, and I figured we could grow together – Lebanon and I – even if the economy was in freefall. The Lebanese pound was 900 to the dollar (16 years earlier, it had been 2.25) and by May it hit 1,621. There were riots on the streets of Beirut and then prime minister Omar Karami’s woeful government resigned. His successor Rachid Solh lasted five months, during which time the currency value slipped to an all-time low of 2,500 pounds to the dollar and the path was clear for Rafik Hariri to take center-stage and rescue the country with his vision of a tolerant and prosperous Lebanon.
Over the next 13 years, until he and 21 others were killed by a roadside bomb outside the Hotel St Georges, Mr Hariri bestrode Lebanese politics. But for those of us who witnessed him riding into town, it is hard to underestimate the optimism we all felt. He offered the hope of peace and prosperity after a decade and a half of bloodshed and misery.
Mr Hariri was a man who had made his Croesus-like fortune delivering construction projects to deadline in Saudi Arabia. He had a significant role negotiating the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the war and quietly educated hundreds of underprivileged Lebanese by providing university scholarships. Now, he was set to take centre-stage and use his network contacts – prime ministers, presidents, billionaires and kings – to help him rebuild Lebanon and restore its reputation as a glamorous entrepot.
While the Lebanese pound levelled out and even clawed back some of its value against the dollar, Mr Hariri told us he had a plan. Imagine that. Lebanon with a plan. Horizon 2000 was based on rebuilding Beirut, quite literally out of the rubble, as a gleaming new capital, a shopfront for foreign investment and tourism. His was a policy of “build it and they will come” but Mr Hariri borrowed heavily, betting on a regional peace deal and foreign inflows.
It nearly worked. After the September 11 attacks, Arab tourists, who found themselves personae non-grata in much of the West, sought sanctuary in the new Beirut, a city where they were welcomed; that spoke their language and where, for a price, their every need was catered to. And for a while the cash registers rang.
Mr Hariri's plan was to co-opt the former war lords and the Syrians, who ran Lebanon, while he got on with the job of fixing things, hoping that wealth and prosperity would keep everything on an even keel.
His long-time ally and friend, former prime minister Fouad Siniora, is currently in the spotlight as investigations begin into the plague of embezzlement that has brought the country to its knees. But the rest of the political class was no less skilled at siphoning off state funds, usually through the ministries, to sustain their patronage network and fill their coffers. Mr Hariri? He just wanted to get the job done.
Mr Hariri was a man with good intentions, boundless energy and a bold vision. He also inadvertently helped create a climate of corruption which sowed the seeds for Lebanon’s current crisis. But to judge him through the lens of today’s frustrations is to forget that he also guaranteed Lebanon’s existence, saving its unique identity from an even more catastrophic abyss.
An intriguing parlour game is to ask what would have happened had Rafik Hariri never been born. What would downtown Beirut look like today? Who else had the clout to drag us out of the post-war quagmire? Had he not existed, progress would have been even slower and more painful.
His death, alongside his economic wingman – the talented, trusted (and clean) Bassil Fleihan – sparked the Cedar Revolution. It fell short of its aims but it gave this current crop of protesters the courage to know they can effect change. And that might be his biggest legacy.
Michael Karam is a UK-based freelance writer. He was the founding editor of Now Lebanon