|Many Lebanese say Lebanon lost an iconic figure when Hariri was assassinated [EPA]
Many Lebanese consider Rafik Hariri, the late Lebanese prime minister, to have been the driving force behind the country’s rehabilitation and reconstruction following civil wars and foreign invasion between 1975 and 1991.
When he was assassinated in a truck bomb explosion targeting his motorcade in downtown Beirut on February 14, 2005, his supporters said the country had lost an icon of the nation’s spirit.
He was seen as having helped thousands of people into colleges and universities through the Hariri Foundation, which he established in 1979 with the hope of capitalising on the skills and talents of the country’s youth.
In the early 1980s, Hariri created a fund of $12m from his personal wealth to help Lebanese victims of the Israeli invasion.
Following his death, a grassroots movement called the Cedar Revolution, which was widely supported by the Lebanese opposition, mobilised to demand that Syria withdraw its troops and end its 29-year occupation of Lebanon.
The Lebanese opposition accused pro-Syrian elements of the government, as well as Damascus, of being behind the assassination.
On March 14, 2005 nearly 800,000 Lebanese gathered in Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut to remember the slain leader and to call on the international community to pressure Syria to withdraw.
Syrian forces completed their withdrawal by April 26, 2005.
|Some credit Hariri with rehabilitating the country after years of war [AFP]|
Born to a modest Sunni family from the southern port city of Sidon on November 1, 1944, Hariri left for Saudi Arabia after graduating from Beirut Arab University in 1966.
In 1969, he established Ciconest, a small construction sub-contracting firm.
In 1977, his construction company was hired as a sub-contractor for Oger, an affiliate of a French group, to construct a palace for the late Saudi King Khalid in the resort of Taif.
The completion of the project within six months, ahead of an Islamic summit hosted by the Kingdom, won Hariri praise from the Saudi monarchy and he was awarded Saudi citizenship, a rare privilege, in 1978.
He then went on to become Saudi Arabia’s leading entrepreneur, acquiring Oger in 1979 and founding Oger International, which was based in Paris.
Hariri’s interests extended across banking, real estate, oil, industry and telecommunications.
In 1979, Hariri turned to philanthropic projects and founded what would later be called the Hariri Foundation. The Foundation has in in the past 30 years provided assistance and interest-free loans to help more than 30,000 young Lebanese pursue higher education.
Hariri entered the political ring in earnest in 1989, when he used personal funds to finance the Taif National Reconciliation Accords which would draw up policies to end the destructive civil war.
The war, which had killed up to 250,000 people and left another one million injured, was formally declared over on October 13, 1990.
In 1992, Hariri was named prime minister at the relatively young age of 48.
He quickly worked to rehabilitate and rebuild the country, sending an army of bulldozers to clean up the debris-riddled streets.
Backed by a Lebanese public that was desperate for drastic economic initiatives in the post-war era, Hariri launched a series of reforms and privatisation packages.
He implemented a 10-year revitalisation plan called Horizon 2000. This in part depended on massive urban renewal in Beirut’s downtown district, which had been heavily shelled since 1975.
He established a company, Solidere, which was awarded many of the reconstruction contracts. He also encouraged foreign investment.
However, critics charged that he had awarded his own companies a virtual monopoly over reconstruction contracts, thereby increasing both his influence and wealth.
Despite many setbacks, Hariri was regarded as a political survivor.
He lost office in 1998 following allegations by Emile Lahoud, the then president, that he had neglected the country’s poor and mismanaged Lebanon’s debt, which had dramatically increased during the post-war reconstruction project he spearheaded.
However, he was back in power in 2000 after a landslide election victory as many Lebanese saw no alternative to reversing an economic slide that worsened in his absence.
But optimism about the businessman’s ability to resurrect Lebanon as a financial and tourism hub was tempered by the mounting number of battles fought with Lahoud loyalists over privatisation and other cost-cutting plans.
When Lebanon faced a financial crisis in 2002, Hariri persuaded France to host an international summit of lenders who pledged enough cash to avert a meltdown.
|Hariri pushed for an aggressive reconstruction drive in central Beirut [EPA]|
The construction magnate’s ties with European, Asian and Arab leaders helped keep Lebanon from financial collapse resulting from the national debt.
Businessmen praised him for cutting through a paralysed Lebanese state bureaucracy and rebuilding war-shattered Beirut, including the downtown area that rose from the ruins to become top-end property.
But some of his critics said he was using his political responsibilities to consolidate his influence on Lebanon and increase his assets.
He headed five governments, before stepping down in October 2004 amid a political rift with Lahoud following a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to Syria’s military and political roles in Lebanon.
Having fallen in and out of favour with Damascus over the years, he joined calls by the opposition for Syrian troops to quit Lebanon in the run-up to a general election in May 2005.