By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 30, 2005
BEIRUT, May 29 -- The chants were audible inside the stone, fortress-like residence of the family of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's assassinated prime minister, when his son and successor, Saad, rose from his chair Sunday and walked to the fourth-floor balcony. In jeans and a casual shirt, he waved to supporters below. To admirers in balconies across the street, he smiled.
"Saad! Saad! Saad!" the youths chanted in response. "With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Saad!"
Residents of Beirut, the capital, voted Sunday in the first stage of Lebanon's weeks-long elections for a new parliament, the first in nearly 30 years without the presence of Syrian troops in this mountainous country along the Mediterranean Sea. Turnout was remarkably tepid, an acknowledgment that the races for the 19 seats in Beirut were all but decided in backroom deals and bargaining even before ballots were cast. The larger import was perhaps the day's symbolism: the coronation of the 35-year-old Hariri -- for now, Lebanon's favorite son -- as a pivotal player in the country's byzantine politics as he assumes the mantle of his father.
"I don't lie to myself," Hariri said in an interview with several reporters. "Everybody is going to vote for my father today. If I don't prove myself in four years, if I don't work hard, if I don't fill a little bit of his shoes, then people will punish me."
Hariri's campaign, built on the outpouring of grief and anger over his father's death in a massive car bombing on Feb. 14, proved to be a juggernaut in the city. Portraits of him and his father washed across the capital, and throughout the day, cars careered through Beirut's winding streets, playing recordings of his father's speeches and broadcasting chants of fidelity to his son. Workers loyal to the Hariris' Future Movement guided voters to polling stations, where some residents entered with water bottles emblazoned with the father's pictures. Others wore T-shirts embossed with the slogan that had become Hariri's campaign theme: "With you."
"I have to demonstrate my loyalty to the shedding of his father's blood," said Mohammed Shumaan, a 35-year-old cook, as he stuffed pita bread with falafel at a small restaurant. "The majority will vote today for Rafiq Hariri and hope for the future."
The Interior Ministry said just 28 percent of the 420,630 eligible voters in Beirut cast ballots, a slightly smaller turnout than in 2000, when candidates in Beirut loyal to Hariri, then allied with neighboring Syria, dominated. For many, the results this time were a foregone conclusion. All 19 seats went to Hariri's allies. Nine candidates were unopposed.
Hariri's coalition is also expected to do well in the rest of the country, positioning him as a possible prime minister when the next government is formed. Most dominant parties and factions came together in a coalition led by Hariri to run in the elections, which will continue on successive Sundays until June 19. The bargaining that secured the lists -- uniting onetime civil war enemies and candidates across ideological divides -- irritated many in Lebanon, who expected the Syrian withdrawal to inaugurate an era of change in a system dominated by veteran personalities and the religious sects they represent.
"I came here thinking it was going to be a real election, and I came here to find that it had all been divvied up," said Wael Lazkani, 27, a Lebanese who lives in London but was visiting Beirut.
The opposition that helped force Syria out, in part through protests by hundreds of thousands in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, has since divided. Michel Aoun, a former general and prime minister who fought Syria and fellow Christians in the waning days of the 1975-90 civil war and was exiled for 15 years in France, has denounced Hariri and those allied with him for maintaining ties to Syria before its withdrawal. Aoun's candidates will compete in some districts, but his followers urged a boycott of the voting in Beirut.
"Boycott the appointments," read orange placards that his followers handed out in a Christian neighborhood.
In the interview, Hariri dismissed such criticism. The Syrian withdrawal in itself, he said, was seismic.
"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.