Courtesy Reuters

The Autumn of the Autocrats


They quarreled with Rafiq Hariri's way of rebuilding Beirut, dismissing his renewal project as an assault on the capital's archaeological heritage and the graceful old city of fabled memory. They wrote off his ambitious economic policy, pointing to the vast public debt that accumulated under his stewardship. Many Lebanese saw Hariri as Saudi Arabia's man, never quite taking to the swashbuckling way he climbed to the heights of power. But on February 14, when the former prime minister was struck down by a huge bomb that shattered his motorcade as it passed near Beirut's swank hotels and sea front -- in the very district his construction company had remade from rubble -- Lebanon had its first "martyr" in many years.

Hariri had not been a vocal opponent of Syria, but the opposition now claimed him as its own. He had risen through the subtle workings of politics and power, but "the street" now belonged to him. A Sunni Muslim, he had never bonded entirely with the Christians of East Beirut and Mount Lebanon, but he now became public property, a symbol of national unity. If Hariri's assassins sought to make an example of him for his growing defiance of Syrian power, the aftermath of the crime mocked them. A country forgotten and consigned to the captivity of its eastern neighbor shook off its fear and reticence. For the span of a generation, Lebanon was merely an appendage of Syrian power: for all practical purposes, the small republic left the world of independent nations. But now the Lebanese were clamoring for a return to normalcy, calling their spontaneous eruption the "independence intifada."

Lebanon, with a distinctive history and character, was not, after all, a part of "Greater Syria"; it would not be written off as a strategic consolation prize for a regime locked into an increasingly uneven standoff with Israel. It had taken a quarter century of guile for the late Syrian dictator Hafiz al-Assad to consolidate his power

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