From his first year as Lebanon's prime minister, Rafiq Hariri knew he was a hunted man.
One day in 1993, about 10 months into his tenure, I went to interview Hariri at his art deco villa. As we talked, I noticed that he was barely listening to my questions. His face ashen and glistening with beads of sweat, he led me to a square garden behind the house to chat privately. But even then, as we strolled and conversed, he kept looking nervously over his shoulder.
Who's boss? As Lebanon's prime minister in 1996, Rafiq Hariri, left, consulted with Syria's leader, Hafez Assad.
He was just back from Damascus, where he and Lebanon's president and speaker of the parliament had been dressed down by Hafez Assad, Syria's president then, as though they were office boys who had spilled the coffee. The reason: The Lebanese leaders had sent their army into towns just north of Israel to disarm the Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah, which Assad felt was a useful tool of Syrian policy.
And while the Lebanese leaders had quickly pulled the army back, Hariri had good reason to be worried. That week, I learned later, two car bombs had been found along the road between his home in Koreitem near the sea and his office at the Serail near the center of Beirut.
For 20 years, Hariri had trod softly through the minefield of Lebanese politics, making deals at home while placating the Syrian overlords who treat Lebanon like a colony. But when he stopped doing business as usual, it all caught up to him. Whether the much-feared Syrians planted the bomb that killed the ex-prime minister and 13 other people last Monday or whether some other group carried out the attack will probably never be known. But it almost doesn't matter. What matters is this: Hariri -- businessman, philanthropist, twice prime minister and most recently potential opposition leader -- represented the cosmopolitan face of an increasingly normal, independent-minded and democratic Lebanon. And someone somewhere decided to prove that Lebanon is still a dysfunctional, subjugated nation and to show President Bush that he cannot impose his idea of democracy on the Middle East.
That's why it is difficult for the world to write off Hariri's assassination as just another episode in Lebanon's fratricidal history. The bloody message of Hariri's death is not aimed solely at Lebanon's outspoken democrats, whose membership now spills across religious boundaries and who had been gathering strength from Hariri's new role as an outsider. The murder was intended to show that powerful people and interests are ready to push back against democratic forces, whether they come from lines of Iraqi voters braving terrorists, participants in Saudi Arabia's municipal elections, Palestinians who cast ballots in the West Bank and Gaza, dissidents in Egypt or Syria, or democratic crusaders in the White House.
At least such is the calculation of Hariri's killers.
I first met Hariri in 1983. It was an eerily quiet afternoon during the eighth year of Lebanon's civil war, and the delicious breeze felt like a breath of divine forgiveness, offering time out for a frivolous chat with a benevolent billionaire.
Hariri, then just a businessman, was paying out of his own pocket to have palm trees planted and new lighting installed along Beirut's seaside Corniche after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. His name had surfaced in a conversation because he was also building a vocational school near his hometown and sponsoring more than 30,000 Lebanese university students abroad.
To a war-hardened Lebanese reporter like me, it was like meeting Santa Claus. He was waiting for me on a sofa in a modest sitting room. Dressed in sporty attire, he was fondling worry beads. He had thick, bushy black eyebrows and an easy smile. And he made you want to believe in his fantasy.
His dream was to turn Beirut into a vibrant metropolis again. At a time when street battles raged and aerial bombs and artillery barrages were slamming into high-rises and changing the city's skyline, this bordered on hallucination. He talked about fancy new hotels, conference halls, arched garden spots and sports stadiums.
He told me his life story. Born in Sidon, an ancient port, Hariri grew up poor. As a boy, he picked lemons and oranges to help his family. At university in Beirut, he trained to be a math teacher, but was lured by a newspaper ad to work in Saudi Arabia. Soon he became a construction contractor, profiting from the oil boom. After winning a bid to build a royal guest palace for half the price of other international firms and then finishing it in record time, he became the favored contractor of the House of Saud, which had wearied of greedy outsiders.
By the time I met him, he had amassed a fortune of $4 billion, yet it ate at him that he was able to build glitzy shopping and office towers in Riyadh while Beirut's midtown lay like a gaping wound, with heaps of peeling masonry and twisted metal beams rusting in the sun.
I once asked him how he wanted to go down in history. "I want to be the man who reconstructed Lebanon," he said. "I want my grandchild to walk around one day and say 'my grandfather did this.' "