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Political Scion Takes to Stage as Lebanese Vote

Saad Hariri, who many people believe will be Lebanon's next prime minister, celebrates with supporters in Beirut after the first round of parliamentary elections, the first in nearly 30 years without the presence of Syrian troops.
Saad Hariri, who many people believe will be Lebanon's next prime minister, celebrates with supporters in Beirut after the first round of parliamentary elections, the first in nearly 30 years without the presence of Syrian troops. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

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"No Lebanese in his dreams thought that would be possible," he said. "The security police state we had has crumbled, and these elections will make it, hopefully, more difficult for any police state to reassert itself."

The soft-spoken, goateed Hariri, with a degree from Georgetown University, was an unlikely entrant in Lebanese politics. After his father's death, the family chose him over his eldest brother to assume the family's leadership. Until then, he had made his name in business in Saudi Arabia, where his father had accumulated his fortune. The younger Hariri ran his father's company, Saudi Oger, a construction firm with 35,000 employees. His family remains in Saudi Arabia, where he said he was "born and bred."

Hariri put his chances of becoming the next prime minister, a powerful post reserved for the Sunni Muslim community, at "50-50." (The presidency is reserved for Maronite Catholics, the speaker of parliament for Shiite Muslims.) His advisers, he said, are split on whether he should pursue the job. If he doesn't, he said, he expects to have a say in who does. Either way, he will have to navigate tortuous Lebanese politics, deeply divided along religious lines in a country with 18 Muslim and Christian sects.

"For me, it's something that moves my stomach," he said of the religious divide. "Excuse my word, puke."

"I'm going to do politics for a few years," he added, visibly tired after seven hours of sleep in the past 72 hours. "It is not something I want to do for the rest of my life."

Given its size and fractious politics, Lebanon was long a minor player in the region, overshadowed by neighboring Syria, which dictated its foreign and domestic policy. Hariri said Lebanon and Syria, whose "cultures are intermingled," needed to have a healthy relationship. He said he expected no peace between Lebanon and Israel before Syria reached its own treaty.

Hezbollah, the armed Shiite Muslim movement, may prove to be a more pressing matter. The United States has insisted the movement disarm, and the United Nations has demanded in a resolution that it do so. Hezbollah has rejected the demand, insisting it needs its weapons to liberate a sliver of land and create balance with Israel. Many expect the issue of disarmament to loom before the next parliament, though Hariri played down any confrontation.

"The international community is concerned a little too much with Hezbollah and should be concerned with the stability of Lebanon," he said. "Maybe it's an international demand, but it's not a Lebanese demand."

"This is a party that exists, this is a party that has popularity and this is party that is here to stay," Hariri said.


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