He was no saint. His ambitious project to resurrect Beirut at the expense of small landowners while benefiting his own construction interests aroused controversy. And many people resented his habit of co-opting critics and buying loyalty.
When he came to political power in 1992, two elected Lebanese presidents had been assassinated, Bashir Gemayel in 1982 and Rene Moawad in 1989. Leaders who dared to cross Damascus appeared to run unusual risks; Prime Minister Rashid Karami, Druze Chieftain Kamal Jumblatt, the Grand Mufti of the Republic and many others were assassinated as well.
Who's boss? As Lebanon's prime minister in 1996, Rafiq Hariri, left, consulted with Syria's leader, Hafez Assad.
Hariri survived his stints as prime minister, 10 years in all, precisely because he was willing to accommodate Syria and its meddling in Lebanon's security issues, an approach many Lebanese disliked.
Once an American reporter, Ethan Bronner, asked why the avenues from the airport were plastered with pictures of Hafez Assad. Hariri responded: "It is very easy to put them up. It is not so easy to bring them down." His aides laughed, but it was an apt description of Lebanon's predicament. Inviting Syrian troops in at the start of the war was simple, but asking them to leave was life-threatening, if not impossible.
I had many conversations with Hariri during those years. Sometimes he was charming; other times he was taciturn or intolerant of questions he did not like.
In the mid-'90s, he introduced a law barring journalists from criticizing "Lebanese allies," a reference not only to Syria but to Saudi Arabia, which he hoped would help foot postwar reconstruction costs. Hearing about my displeasure, he had an aide summon me to a meeting. It turned out to be a sumptuous lunch attended by a dozen people -- ministers, yes-men and others. Our discussion deteriorated into a shouting match as I told him he had no right to take away the last thing the war had not managed to kill in Lebanon, a free and lively media.
"I breathe a different air when I cross the overland border from Syria, only because I look forward to reading Lebanese papers," I remember saying. "In every other Arab capital I have visited, newspapers are a waste of time." Always careful about Syria, which he often referred to as "the sister," he politely alerted me to the presence of a Syrian radio journalist, then dangled the prospect of hiring me to run a TV station he was planning to launch. "I am not for sale," I shot back.
The dieting Hariri told me I was upsetting him so much that he was "going to devour the whole dining room table," groaning with platters of food. But when he saw me out, he whispered: "I like it when you are frank with me. Keep doing it, nobody around me dares."
Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once told me that the country was like a tiny fish piloting the big whale below the surface of the sea. He meant that the politics of Lebanon would steer the course of the entire Middle East.
Back in the early 1970s, when Beirut was an international financial and trading center, that statement was a hopeful one for the region. But for a long time, it has been true in the worst possible way. Years of sectarian violence have been followed by years of domination by the father-son Syrian autocrats. And those two periods have seemed to sum up the experiences of other countries in the Middle East.
Lately, Lebanon has portended new things. A wind of change has been blowing into the country from Iraq, Turkey, Palestine and even the deserts of Saudi Arabia -- all places where elections have been held. It's somewhat surprising that the cautious, pragmatic Hariri was touched by that wind, but he was.
Hariri may have been emboldened last October when the Syrians decided to ignore Lebanon's constitution and hand the country's president, Emile Lahoud, a second six-year term despite widespread opposition at home and abroad. Afterward, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution asking Syria to leave Lebanon.
Syrian President Bashar Assad told Hariri about the move in a meeting that lasted no longer than 10 minutes, according to Lebanese journalist Rosana Bou Monsef. Hariri opposed the extension for Lahoud, but Assad never asked his opinion, she wrote in The Daily Star.
So Hariri stepped down as prime minister and joined the movement opposed to government by Syrian diktat. Even as he tried to moderate the opposition parties, he lent them new credibility. He helped win passage for a new electoral law in advance of legislative elections scheduled for May. He and other members of Lebanon's opposition hoped that by gaining seats through a legitimate popular vote, they could dilute Syria's influence.