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Leaks throw dirt on Hariri’s coffin

Posted by seumasach on January 23, 2011

Sami Moubayed

Asia Times

21st January, 2011
DAMASCUS – The year kicked off on a very rough note for Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri. First, 11 ministers walked out on his government, embarrassingly ejecting him from office while Hariri was at the White House meeting with President Barack Obama.

Hariri walked into the Oval Office confidently as the elected prime minister – and left as the disgraced ex-premier. That coincided with the collapse of the Syrian-Saudi initiative for Lebanon, which for months had been trying to bridge the gap between him and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

Then came the thundering “Hakika-Leaks” or “Truth-Leaks” onLebanon’s New TV, airing private and supposedly confidential sessions held between Hariri and United Nations prosecutors over the 2005 murder of his father, Rafik al-Hariri. The scandal’s name is derived from the website WikiLeaks, and has vibrated strongly in Lebanon, making Hariri look silly both before his own constituency and the Lebanese and Arab public at large.

The recordings date to the summer of 2007, over two years before Hariri became prime minister. He came across as timid, uncomfortable, lame, and very rude. In one recording, Hariri was speaking to Syrian citizen Mohammad Zuhair al-Siddiq, a criminal wanted in Syrian and Lebanese courts, who had lied under oath to the UN probe.

Siddiq, one of many false witnesses in the Hariri affair, had falsified information and tried to implicate members of Hezbollah and top Syrian officials in the 2005 murder. Although in the past, Hariri had denied any personal knowledge of the man, the recordings proved otherwise, showing that the relationship between them not only existed, but was far from ceremonial.

Siddiq literarily shouted at Hariri at different intervals in the recorded tape, and complained that he had called him and sent him an SMS, proof that Siddiq was so close that he had Hariri’s private cell-phone number. Present in the meeting was Hariri’s top security aide Colonel Wissam al-Hasan, whom Siddiq addressed as “Wissam”.

Hasan was originally considered a prime suspect in the Hariri murder because he failed to show up for work where he was supposed to protect the victim on that fateful day in February 2005. He claimed to have obtained permission to sit for an exam at university, which explains why his phone was switched off when Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb near the Beirut shoreline. UN judges found his alibi weak, and recommended that he be treated as a “prime suspect”, but that was overruled by the international investigation, due to Hasan’s senior position as a top security aid to Saad al-Hariri.

In the second recording aired on “Hakika-Leaks”, Hariri is heard speaking to the investigator about the circumstances that led to his father’s murder. Clearly suffering from rich-boy complex, Hariri accused various Lebanese figures of cuddling up to his father to milk him for money, like the respected Lebanese journalist Talal Salman, publisher of the mass circulation daily as-Safir.

He also said that in 1999 his father had paid the hospital bills of then-Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Shara at the American University Hospital in Beirut. Syria immediately denied this, proving that those bills had been settled by the Syrian government and not Rafik al-Hariri.

The young prime minister also raised doubts about the loyalty of one of his father’s top advisors, Nihad Mashnouq, and fired insults at Lebanese journalist Charles Ayyoub. Then president Emile Lahhoud and security chief Jamil al-Sayyed, he added, were responsible for the deteriorating relationship between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“They hated my father,” he explained, “while Hezbollah and Nabih Berri [speaker of parliament] did not want this relationship [between Hariri senior and Syria] to last.” He also insulted ex-prime minister Najib Mikati, who is now one of the potential candidates to replace him in the premiership, saying: “I made him prime minister [in 2005] but he backstabbed me.”

Also, Hariri doesn’t spare Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, whom Hariri claims wanted to become prime minister of Lebanon, banking on the fact that his Lebanese grandfather was Riad al-Sulh, one of the co-founders of Lebanese independence.

Unable to deny any of his remarks, Hariri had no choice but to say that he was victim of an “intelligence conspiracy” hatched by New TV, which is close to the Hezbollah-led opposition. Embarrassed, he “apologized” through a press release from his media office to all of those he had insulted in the 2007 recording, saying that it was made in very tense and difficult times, completely different from what transpired after he became prime minister in 2009.

The leaks confirm several facts beyond a shadow of a doubt that will likely damage the prime minister’s future. One is that at times he is not to be trusted – he says one thing in private and another thing in public. Second, he knew and was part of the “false witness” saga that the opposition has been trumpeting for two years.

The recordings of Hariri speaking to Siddiq – who has been confirmed a false witness by everybody who met him, including the UN judges – confirms all the speculation about Hariri having orchestrated the false witnesses and then protecting them for more than five years.

That might explain why Hezbollah was so serious about bringing them to justice before any deal could be hammered out between the opposition and Hariri. The leaks also confirm that despite his refusal to step down, Hariri’s chances of becoming prime minister once again are low.

There are voices in Lebanon, however, saying that if Hariri were ejected from power in such a manner by Hezbollah, he would become a national hero for Lebanese Sunnis. They say that unseating Hariri at this stage is very unwise. Forcing him out of the cabinet in such a manner by Hezbollah would do him the best favor for his career since his father’s assassination in 2005.

A better way to discredit Hariri would be to keep him in power and let him commit blunder after blunder, which would slowly break his popularity base in Beirut.

In the opposition, Hariri cannot go wrong and people would rally around him because they sympathize with leaders who are out of office, who are making rosy promises, and who don’t shoulder blame for government failure. That was also true when it came to Hariri senior, whose popularity was one thing when he was in power in 1992-1998, and reached completely new heights when he was in the opposition in 1998-2000.

Additionally, many in the opposition are worried that in as much as it wants a pro-Western prime minister in Lebanon, the US would prefer a pro-Western one like Omar Karameh, who obstructs the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating Hariri’s killing because that makes it easier to pressure, isolate and corner the Lebanese.

Given all of the above, and the sharp contrast between all three scenarios, Hariri’s political future at this stage is on hold, awaiting the results of a recent Syrian-Turkish-Qatari summit over Lebanon. Reportedly, the Turks believe Hariri should be maintained as prime minister.

Among the ideas floating in Beirut is for Hariri to come back only after he distances himself from the STL, confesses in public that it is a politicized court, rather than a neutral one, and agrees to a joint Qatari-Turkish committee to evaluate the bill of indictment and verdicts of the STL when they are released.

All of that, still, remains nothing but wishful thinking for Lebanon

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