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Murder in Beirut

Nicholas Blanford gives a stimulating account of a country in turmoil in Killing Mr Lebanon, says Jonathan Steele

Saturday October 21, 2006
The Guardian


Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford
Buy Killing Mr Lebanon at the Guardian bookshop
 

Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East
by Nicholas Blanford
256pp, IB Tauris, £17.99

This summer's ferocious Israeli offensive against Lebanon was the most unusual of wars. There was no visible build-up of tension, no preliminary sabre-rattling, none of the gathering clouds that leave anxious observers arguing whether the storm will really break and if there's time to find shelter.

War erupted out of the blue. It was as though a whole country had been mugged. Successfully rebuilt after years of civil war and with Beirut back in place as the Arab world's most sophisticated multicultural metropolis, the country was unexpectedly knocked to its knees.

The crisis eclipsed everything that had gone on in Lebanon over the previous two years, which, as this authoritative book makes clear, was also a time of great turbulence. No physical destruction occurred, but the fabric of communal harmony that had kept the peace since 1990 came under severe strain with the murder of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's charismatic Sunni leader.

Nicholas Blanford has lived in Beirut for more than a decade, working for the Christian Science Monitor and the Times. He is widely recognised as the best-informed outside expert on Lebanese politics, and his account of Hariri's life and death is stimulating but measured. He rejects the simplifications that informed many interpretations of the "cedar revolution" of 2005, when huge crowds came into the streets demanding the departure of Syria's troops after Hariri's murder.

He points out that the phrase was invented by Paula Dobriansky, US undersecretary for global affairs, to try to make it more understandable to western viewers, with its overtones of people's power in former Soviet republics. The phrase Blanford and most Lebanese preferred was the "independence intifada", an analogy less palatable to Washington.

Blanford does not go into detail on the investigation into who killed Hariri, though he clearly supports the view that Syria thought it had most to gain from Hariri's removal and that senior figures in Syrian intelligence probably organised it. His book's main value is the light it sheds on this gregarious businessman-turned-politician and the real nature of politics in Lebanon.

Like barons in medieval England or caudillos in 19th-century Latin America, the strongmen of Lebanese politics were hard-riding communal leaders who demanded unstinting loyalty from their followers even as they switched their own allegiances and made deals with previous rivals with breathtaking lack of principle. Hariri had no militia, but used money in its place. "He was a corrupter rather than corrupt," as Blanford quotes one Hariri admirer saying. During his rise to power, eventually emerging as prime minister, he would lavish money on people he felt could be useful, even supplying new cars and jewellery to the secretaries of powerful figures so that they would put him through to their employers whenever necessary.

His campaign against Syria was not motivated by prejudice or ideology or even by a desire to play down the confrontation with Israel, and for years he was close to the Syrians himself. He dithered and hesitated, but in the end felt that Syrian influence was preventing domestic Lebanese politics from developing.

With the hindsight of this summer's war, some of the best passages in this book (which was completed in February) cover Hariri's discussions with the Hizbullah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. The two men used to meet frequently for secret late-night talks, which Blanford describes as "relaxed and peppered with jokes". They both came from humble origins. Both were Arab nationalists with a vision going beyond Lebanon. Both had lost 18-year-old sons - though the manner of the two deaths marked a profound contrast in lifestyles. Hariri's son was killed in a car crash in the United States, Nasrallah's as a resistance fighter in a clash with Israeli commandos in occupied south Lebanon.

Although lionised by the Americans, particularly in death, Hariri did not share their view that Hizbullah had to disarm. As Blanford puts it: "Hariri understood that forcing Hizbullah to disarm would have perilous consequences for Lebanon's stability." He favoured a gradual approach under which Hizbullah would become more enmeshed in the domestic political framework and slowly cease to be a militia, provided of course there was a just settlement of the central Middle Eastern conflict, Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.

Hariri's death produced a temporary polarisation within Lebanon, made worse by pressure from France and the United States, but by the time of this summer's war, deals among the disparate politicians had restored a surprising degree of unity about the country's priorities. This did not mean that the rawness of Hariri's death had been forgotten. Rather it was that Hariri-style compromises and his view that people should focus on the bigger picture beyond communal politics had won out again. Not a bad legacy.