Son of murdered Hariri heads for poll win

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The Independent Online

The man who may well be Lebanon's new prime minister had slept seven hours in the previous 72 and spoke in a monotone, but he was near to tears when he referred to his murdered father.

The man who may well be Lebanon's new prime minister had slept seven hours in the previous 72 and spoke in a monotone, but he was near to tears when he referred to his murdered father.

Outside, a crowd of voters roared their support for the son of Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated on 14 February. Saad Hariri walked wearily to the balcony to wave at them. "I can't even believe this is happening; I'm still in disbelief that my father is not here," he said. "I don't lie to myself. Everyone is going to vote for my father today."

He is probably right. Hariri the father looks balefully down from the street posters, his son's photograph below, but it is the father's image that dominates Beirut. "Ma'ak," (We are with you) it says on one.

"Haqiqa" (the truth) is plastered on thousands of walls, an aspiration of most Lebanese as well as Saad Hariri's Future Movement party. The truth about who murdered Rafik is what it demands; and with a UN team now gathering in Lebanon to discover the facts about the elder Hariri's death, there are rumours that even the pro-Syrian President, Emile Lahoud, could face an indictment.

Saad Hariri speaks English better than his assassinated father - he was educated at Georgetown - and will lead the largest coalition in the new Lebanese parliament, for whose MPs voters went to the polls yesterday in the first free elections in Lebanon for 30 years.

When he talks, he does so with an undertow of anger at the sacrifice inflicted on his family.

"The security police state in Lebanon has crumbled and this election will make it hopefully more difficult for a police state to re-establish itself."

But was he sure of that? Couldn't the long hand that killed his father reach out for Saad Hariri too?

"Look," he says. "I feel safe. I don't worry about it. My father had a great belief in God and we all do in the family, so for us in the family it has been a huge loss. But I'm not worried."

He shrugs with a mixture of tiredness and fatalism. President Lahoud should "think of his status" - which sounds like a suggestion that he should resign - once the elections are over.

Saad Hariri was a good deal milder with Syria's other allies, the Hizbollah guerrilla movement.

"It may be an international demand [that they should be disarmed]," he said, "but it's not a Lebanese demand. Our policy is to stand with Hizbollah and to open discussions with them on a Lebanese table with Lebanese give-and-take. Hizbollah has its constituency - 450,000 to 500,000 people - and this is a party that exists, that has popularity, that is here to stay. We have security problems on the Israeli border and we have land that is still occupied."

His demands are familiar: democracy, freedom, administrative reforms independent judges, a system in which "politicians and security officials stop meddling with the justice department".

When I ask for his thoughts on General Michel Aoun, the Christian ex-army chief of staff who returned from French exile believing that he would lead the opposition and smeared both Saad Hariri and his fellow opposition leader Walid Jumblatt as "worse that Rustum Ghazale" (the former Syrian head of military intelligence in Lebanon), there comes a darker narrative. "Ah, 'General de Gaulle'," he says softly. "General Aoun has good intentions for the country. We didn't have any problems with his political programme ... but the general has a problem with our allies [the Druze].

"For me, I will not let down those who stayed with me, who were suppressed for 15 years. How could one say to those people - 'thank you, but there is someone better than you [to be allied with]?'"

And the comparison to Ghazale? "I think the general sometimes says things he doesn't mean ... but if he meant this, he has a serious problem with us. I was going to meet him at my father's grave, but when he came to the airport, he said some unpleasant things.

"He said my father's death 'expedited' the Syrian withdrawal. Even if he believes these things, he shouldn't say them."

The reality, needless to say, is that it was the public reaction to the murder that forced the Syrian retreat, not Aoun's bellowings from exile. So how does Saad Hariri handle the rallies, the crowds? "Every rally is breathtaking and affects me emotionally. I find it hard to see myself present there, and not my father ... I must work hard for Beirut and Lebanon over the next four years because if I relax and rest, the people will punish me. My father always worked in politics because this was the only way he could help Lebanon."