Elias Hrawi

Pro-Syrian President of Lebanon
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The Independent Online

Elias Hrawi, politician: born Hawsh al-Omara, Lebanon 4 September 1925; President of Lebanon 1989-98; twice married (three sons, two daughters); died Beirut 7 July 2006.

He was a tough little man. And, like all Zahle people, Elias Hrawi spoke his mind, cursing supporters of ex-General Michel Aoun who interrupted him in a Catholic cathedral in New York, sending two poor young Muslim men to the gallows for the murder of a Christian man and woman near Jounieh, refusing to be cowed by his political betters because he didn't have the same pedigree as the zoama of Lebanon.

He was Syria's man and when he took over the Lebanese presidency from the murdered Rene Mouawad in 1989 - murdered by whom, we still ask in Beirut, with a glance over our shoulder at Damascus? - no one believed he could unite the Lebanese army and turn Beirut back into the flourishing city it had been before the civil war.

It was left to Rafiq Hariri to do that - another glance over our shoulder towards Damascus, perhaps, as we contemplate that former prime minister's murder on 14 February last year - but few grieved for him more than Hrawi. A visitor to the Hariri family home after the assassination found Hrawi crying uncontrollably in the elevator. He was an emotional man - another characteristic of folk from that beautiful Christian city in the Bekaa - and he also nursed a stern comprehension of what was wrong with his country.

In the years to come, it will not be Hrawi's nine-year presidency that will be remembered, but his proposal - as outrageous as it was courageous and brilliant - to create a form of civil marriage. Hrawi's idea was to break the sectarian system in Lebanon by encouraging its citizens to marry outside their sect and by taking from the mosque and the church the huge incomes they made from marriages and divorce settlements. Needless to say, mutually antagonistic imams and bishops immediately met jointly to condemn this outlandish and eminently sensible proposal - a holy alliance that succeeded in its purpose - put forward to the acclaim of both Muslims and Christians; which is why Lebanese who seek a civil marriage must still take the 20-minute flight to Cyprus.

Elias Hrawi was a farming man from the poorer end of Zahle, son of a landowning Maronite family who was elected President in a nearby hotel - the Park at Chtaura - two days after Mouawad's murder. And it was Hrawi who formally asked the Syrians to evict General Michel Aoun - who also thought he was the President - from his palace at Baabda. This the Syrians did the following year, bombing the palace from the air, sending Aoun off in his pyjamas to the French ambassador's residence and massacring dozens of his soldiers.

Dozens of Syrian soldiers, it should be added, had been torn to pieces when charging through a minefield after they believed Aoun's men would observe a ceasefire. Hrawi eventually moved into the much-damaged palace.

It was his duty to preside over the treaty of national understanding drawn up at Taif in Saudi Arabia which gave Muslims more seats in Lebanon's sectarian parliament and moved power away from the Maronite presidency in favour of the prime minister, who must, under Lebanese law, be a Sunni Muslim. In the end, the Taif accord provided only first aid to Lebanon's confessional problems, which are as insoluble as the nation itself. To be a modern state, Lebanon has to shrug off sectarianism. But, if it is not sectarian, Lebanon would no longer be Lebanon. Hence Hrawi's doomed attempt at civil marriage which Lebanon's pusillanimous parliamentarians refused to vote for after the usual pressure had been brought to bear by men of the cloth.

The darker side of Hrawi came through when he signed the death warrants of two men who had been convicted for the murder of a Christian man and his sister in Jounieh. Told that they might be pardoned and that they were only being taken to re-enact the scene of their crime, the two men were taken from a police vehicle to be confronted by hooded hangmen and hundreds of night-clubbing couples who - in mini-skirts and fashionable hairdos - had gathered to watch the event. The two Muslims were taken, swooning with terror, to the scaffold and took minutes to strangle on the noose in front of the crowd, many of whom were drunk.

"He wanted to show he could hang Muslims in a Christian area," one of Hariri's security officials later told me. It was a disgusting spectacle which Hrawi should never have permitted.

But the Lebanon he inherited - broken by civil war and sectarian hatred - was left a better, safer, more mature place and this will be his legacy. He died of cancer and would have enjoyed the fact that at least one Lebanese newspaper announced his demise three weeks before it actually occurred. Hrawi was no quitter.

Robert Fisk