The Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria (recently launched by former Lebanese Defense Minister Elias al-Murr) published a four-part series last week containing an alleged transcript of the final meeting between Rafiq al-Hariri and Walid al-Muallim. The date of the meeting is not specified, but based on a few contextual remarks from within the text, I would guess that it had to have taken place mere days before Hariri’s assassination.
At the time, al-Muallim was Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister and al-Hariri had recently resigned as Prime Minister of Lebanon. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the upcoming parliamentary elections, but the two men spent a great deal of time talking about the rocky relationship between al-Hariri and Bashar al-Assad.
Several months earlier, in mid-2004, the US and France had started to put together UNSCR 1559, which demanded an end to the Syrian presence in Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbullah. The resolution passed on September 2, and the following day the Lebanese parliament (under Syrian pressure) voted to extend President Emile Lahoud’s term for an additional three years, despite widespread opposition.
A month later, there was a failed assassination attempt on the life of former minister Marwan Hamadeh (who had resigned from his post in protest of Lahoud’s extension). A few weeks later, on October 20, Hariri resigned from his post as Prime Minister, and there were rumors that he had joined the anti-Syrian opposition (comprised at the time of Walid Jumblatt, the exiled Michel Aoun, and some other Christian politicians.)
The meeting with al-Muallim took place against this background. As you will see, Hariri attempts to burnish his bonafides as a stalwart Syrian ally while also expressing his frustration with Bashar’s leadership and the Syrian security regime in Lebanon. He simultaneously insists that he had nothing to do with 1559, while hinting archly that even if he had played a role in organizing it, he would have had good reasons for doing so.
Shortly thereafter, al-Hariri was dead.
There is a noteworthy resemblance between the historical moment captured by this transcript and the present situation. In both instances, Bashar is faced with a mutiny from unexpected quarters. In 2004-05, it was his formerly trustworthy allies in Lebanon and usually-dependable France; today, it’s a considerable segment of his own population, along with valuable allies in Ankara and Riyadh.
More comments later. For now, enjoy the transcript (Arabic readers should read the entire thing by following the four links posted below.)
PS: For another interview with Hariri from roughly the same period, see here.
Hariri: I am dedicated to the success of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, and I want this to be your achievement, in view of my great respect for you, and I know that you are a good and decent man and that you don’t have any hidden agendas. There’s no doubt that the Lebanese-Syrian relationship is not in its best of times, and it may get worse, but this does not concern us. It has been shown and I’ve told you personally that Syria is of utmost importance to me, and I could not do anything to hurt it. I’m someone who has a say in the affairs of this country, and I will not accept that the governance of this country will be in the hands of someone who is opposed to or even neutral with respect to Syria. I want our government to be allied with Syria. But Lebanon will not be ruled by Syria forever, and we’ve reached a stage where we are hurting ourselves and hurting Syria in every respect…
[They discuss the proposed district map which Hariri claims is designed to diminish his parliamentary bloc.]
Hariri: My dear Walid, I’m going to speak to you honestly. In the Ta’if Accord, we agreed with our Christian brothers to give half the deputies of parliament to the Muslims, and half to the Christians. And we agreed at the same time to hold elections on the basis of governorates [i.e. larger districts, as opposed to the smaller qada’, which was used in the 2009 elections]… as long as Beirut remained a single district, because we didn’t want any radical Christian deputies. Name me a single one of my Christian deputies in Beirut who is radical. When Suleiman Frangieh threatened to divide Beirut in such a way that would separate Christians and Muslims, the deputy Ghattas Khoury, a Maronite, began to adopt more moderate positions so that he could be nominated. In this district map, Gebran Tueni will be nominated. They say that Michel Aoun will also run, and Solange Gemayel as well. What will we do? I will personally run in the same district, and this district map will not help them. I will win this district and that one, and the radical Christians will win this one. They won’t be saved from al-Hariri, however the three or four radical Christians who win will curse Syria all day long, and this will be the genius result that they will have achieved.
Al-Muallim: This is not our concern.
Al-Hariri: It’s absolutely your concern. You want us to kid ourselves? I’m telling you the truth. Through these games of spite and electoral strategies, Lebanon is going to end up opposed to Syria and to me, and this gang [i.e. the “radical Christians”] is going to get away with their plan. The Maronite Patriarch – and they did all of this to satisfy him – … says that UNSCR 1559 is an international matter and that we have nothing to do with it. The electoral law was passed in the Parliament while he was in Rome, and before he met with Chirac, he said that he supported 1559. And after he saw Chirac, he said that the Lebanese should work hand in hand to apply 1559. Why?
I once said to the President [Bashar al-Assad]: “At the end of the day, your supporters [in Lebanon] are the Muslims, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. We may disagree or agree with you, we may get fed up of you, you may be disgusted with us, but at the end of the day, we cannot separate ourselves from you, nor can you separate yourselves from us. No one can shed his own skin…
Hariri: I know who is behind UNSCR 1559. [Syrian Foreign Minister] Farouk al-Shara has convinced Bashar that I’m behind it, because he failed and he want to cover his failure up with me. You’ve known about 1559 since June, and the French told you about it, and the Americans knew. And you know that were it not for the extension [of Lahoud’s presidency], 1559 would never have come out, and you know that this talk [of me being behind it] is wrong.
Muallim: Your Excellency, we want to solve the problem… I have gone to great trouble to come and see you and to convince President Assad. There are intelligence reports about the role of Rafiq al-Hariri in UNSCR 1559 […]
I don’t want to say it, but there’s a negative view of you right now, a view that the Lebanese opposition [comprised at the time of Jumblatt and the anti-Syrian Christian parties] would not be able to stand on its two feet were it not for Rafiq al-Hariri, and that the Future Movement is in the opposition. […]
President Bashar, like any responsible president, defers to the intelligence reports.
Hariri: I spent four years fighting these reports, and I gave up because I couldn’t fight them anymore. My communication with you and President Assad is cut off. You have your people in Lebanon who are solely concerned with Rafiq al-Hariri and sending reports about him. They’re going to send a report saying that I met with you and they’ll change the details completely and invent a dialogue … And I told him [i.e. Bashar]: “Look where Abu `Abdo [i.e. Rustom Ghazaleh] has gotten you.” […]
The Syrian ambassador in France was summoned and they spoke to her about Lahoud’s extension many times, and you concluded that Rafiq al-Hariri was behind anything that came out of France, as if France has a flimsy government that is controlled by Rafiq al-Hariri. Am I French or American, or the earth’s center of gravity??
Muallim: You were Lebanon and Syria’s foreign minister.
Hariri: These were the words that infuriated Farouk al-Shara`.
Muallim: Abu Baha’ [i.e. Hariri] was the foreign minister of both countries.
Hariri: Think about this. Let’s imagine a friend of ours whom we’ve known since 1982, i.e. for 22 years, and we never lost touch with him. And he was a prime minister for 12 years. Why did he change this year? Let them [i.e. the Syrians] ask themselves before they ask me. Why did he change to such an extent that he was prepared to work with everyone against Syria? There’s a reason. He did not change and he remains himself, but he was brought to a point where he couldn’t take it anymore. Why? What happened? Is it his fault or theirs? Am I a French, or European, or American collaborator at heart???
Muallim: They are talking about your influence…
Hariri: Why did I use my influence there? I’ve known Chirac from the beginning, and for the past nine years he’s been walking in lockstep with Syria. When he came to the Lebanese parliament, he said that the Syrian presence would remain in Lebanon until the announcement of peace. I made him say those words and I made him say whatever else he said…
Muallim: They’ve put you in a corner.
Hariri: Why? Who?
Muallim: Us, and our [security] apparatus here.
Hariri: Listen, Walid. There are several elements to the French position. Syria’s diplomats have not grasped the importance of Lebanon to the French. I know what will happen.
Muallim: I am speaking with honesty because I want to deal with this issue.
Hariri: And I am speaking honestly and I know what is going to happen. And I knew about many things that were happening but I didn’t get involved. I was not behind 1559, but I didn’t stop it either. I’ll tell you why. There was a petition launched by Michel Aoun in France after the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA) came out, and 103 French deputies signed it. So Hani Hammoud came to me, and he is a Lebanese-French journalist [and current senior advisor to Saad Hariri] living in France. He came to this exact office and he said: “Mr. Prime Minister, Michel Aoun has launched a petition and 103 French deputies have signed it so far, out of a total of 560 or 650, and it has to do with SALSRA. And some of those who have signed it belong to Chirac’s bloc.” I asked him: “When?” He said that it had happened within the past 24-48 hours. So I contact Chirac and he told me that he had not known about it, and on the same day or the next I called him again and he informed me that the matter was true, and that he had raised hell and called the head of the parliament and had put a stop to it. And I thanked him. At that point, it was claimed in Syria that al-Hariri was behind it!
Muallim: You did not tell the President about what you did.
Hariri: I didn’t tell him. There were many things I did that I did not tell him about… I assumed that this all took place spontaneously, but they assumed that I was behind it and that I then put an end to it so as to pretend I was doing them a favor. And at the time, I was going through a period of being attacked and defamed, so I told myself: “Even if you bend over backwards for these people [i.e. the Syrians], they’re not going to be satisfied and they won’t trust you.”
Muallim: What, so suddenly?
Hariri: Yes… Bashar probably spoke to Farouk [Shara`], who told him that “Hariri was behind this whole thing, and that he put an end to it so as to ‘do us a favor’. There are 103 deputies who have signed the petition, and there will be 400 within three days…” I can’t do anything more than what I’ve already done. And this whole thing happened a little over a year ago [i.e. in late 2003, shortly before SALSRA was passed by the US Congress], and ever since then, I have not gotten involved, until the Arab League Summit in Tunis [on May 22-23, 2004]. Prior to that, I’d had a very angry meeting with Bashar and Ghazi [Kanaan] and Mohammed Khallouf [a Syrian intelligence commander] and Abu `Abdo [Rustom Ghazaleh]. This was a meeting that even God wouldn’t dare put anyone in, and very serious things were said, both by Bashar and the others.
Muallim: Even by Ghazi? [Hariri and Kanaan were known to have a good relationship].
Hariri: Yes. Ask Ghazi about it. I left the meeting having realized that the situation had gotten to be extremely dangerous, and that I was dealing with a young president, and that if I clashed with him, I’d be clashing with Syria. And I said to him: “Do you really believe that I was behind the petition and then put a stop to it so as to pretend I was doing you a favor?”
He asked me what I thought. I said: “If this accusation is true, then I should not return as Prime Minister of Lebanon, and if it is not true, then the accusation should not be made.” After this discussion, I did not meet him until the summit in Tunis. I asked to see him, and they told me that he would see me in Damascus. After I knew what the issue was, I asked to see him to explain the truth to him but he refused. And I didn’t want to speak with Abu Jamal [Abdulhalim Khaddam, Syria’s vice president] or “the guy here” [i.e. Rustom Ghazaleh]. So several months passed, and I didn’t meet with Bashar until Lahoud’s extension happened. He asked to see me, and it was publicly announced that we met for only 14 or 15 minutes. First of all, I’m a prime minister, and you summon me to a meeting for fifteen minutes? Ok, so what’s the point? This was made public, along with the details of our meeting in all the media outlets. Why? On the day of the extension, he summoned me and said: “You always say that you are with Syria, and this will prove if you mean what you say, or if you don’t.” So I said to him: “Mr. President, I’ve been allied with Syria for 25 years. Are you telling me that if I don’t agree with you on this issue, this means I’m against Syria?” He said: “Yes.” So I responded: “I need to think about this.”
So I went to my house in Faqra, and I considered the issue from all angles. And I knew that with the number of deputies in my parliamentary, I could thwart the extension, but that would mean that I would be thwarting Bashar al-Assad, and I couldn’t accept that. There would be a reaction to that, and they would try to elect Suleiman Frangieh instead and make a huge issue out of it. On the other hand, I also knew that the extension would hurt Bashar. He didn’t ask for my opinion; he simply said: “I’ve decided.” So I sat alone racking my brain all night long, and I thought that perhaps he would reconsider his position. I spoke with him the following day and met with him, and we agreed and made the decision.
Then I got on the plane the next day and flew to Morocco, and came back the same day to Beirut. And because I was so frustrated, I fell in the shower and broke my shoulder. That’s the story of my shoulder [which everyone in Beirut joked had been broken by Rustom Ghazaleh]. At that point, Chirac contacted me and asked me not to go along with the extension. He said: “We’re friends, and I reject this whole move.” And I said to him: “It’s ok, I’ve made my decision.”
Hariri: There’s something I don’t understand. Farouk al-Shara` got in touch with [Spanish Foreign Minister] Mouratinos on Thursday morning [i.e. Thursday September 2, 2004, the day before Parliament was scheduled to convene to vote on the Lahoud extension.]
Muallim: Mouratinos contacted Farouk, and asked him to postpone the parliamentary session by 24 hours. That’s what Farouk told me.
Hariri: It was Farouk who contacted Mouratinos, and there’s no point in lying about this, because what happened is the source of the problem. And Farouk told him: “We’re trying to get in touch with the French, and they’re not responding. We want your help.” And Mouratinos said: “I’m ready.” And Farouk said: “We are willing to not go forward with the extension [of Lahoud] if France and the US stop the resolution [i.e. 1559] in the Security Council, at which point we will come to an agreement on a Lebanese president and we can discuss the Lebanese situation.
Muallim: I was told that the exact opposite happened [i.e. that Mouratinos made the offer.]
Hariri: [ignoring him] Mouratinos conveyed this to the French, and it was passed along to the US and other countries. I learned these details later. Ten countries responded positively. Meanwhile, Farouk changed his mind and informed them that “We [i.e. Syria] cannot stop the parliamentary session. You have to speak to Nabih Berri.” So they spoke with Nabih, so that it wouldn’t be said that Syria was pulling the strings. Nabih came and chastised Mouratinos, called the session to be held the next day, we voted for the extension, and I couldn’t understand what was going on.
Why did this happen? The UN resolution was going to be stopped. Did the Syrians think that it would not pass in the Security Council, so they agreed to a deal one minute and then changed their mind the next? I don’t want an answer.
Muallim: And I don’t have an answer. I was recently put in charge of this issue, so I’ve only come to learn.
Hariri: You’re the teacher! What are you talking about?
Muallim: I’m telling you honestly that I can’t imagine a positive role for Syria in Lebanon without Rafiq al-Hariri, nor can I imagine a diplomatic relationship [between Syria and Lebanon] that would harm France. What are we to do now? Leave France aside for the moment…What concerns me is you and Bashar al-Assad, nothing else. What steps need to be taken to make this relationship blossom again without the intelligence apparatus?
Hariri: The situation in the country has progressed to the point where there can be no return to the prior state via a mere cosmetic situation. I have no desire to return as Prime Minister, and you have my word of honor on that… [unless Bashar al-Assad tells me he wants me to be]… But at the same time, I would want to be a Prime Minister with full powers, not one with the cabinet against him.
The interests of both countries demand that we define them and agree on them together, not that Syria appoints all the senior and junior officials in the country. I have not gotten to the point where I’m “butting heads with Bashar al-Assad”… this is empty talk… Why wouldn’t he summon me and ask me what actually happened?
Muallim: This is what should have happened.
Hariri: I heard that Hosni Mubarak told Bashar that Chicac told Mubarak that I had told Chicac that Bashar had “put a gun to my head.” I never said that. Maybe Chirac said that to Mubarak, but this is an expression that only foreigners use which means that someone has done something against his will.
Muallim: For goodness sake.
Hariri: I know that Syria will be hurt by this issue, but it didn’t ask my opinion or listen to me or treat me as a friend. Rather it treated me according to the logic of “You’re either with us or against us.” Let me ask you a question, Walid. If this matter was in your hands, wouldn’t you have summoned me and asked me for my opinion?
Muallim: Of course.
Hariri: Nobody contacted me. We’re not children [i.e. like Bashar]. You would have gotten in touch with me and said: “Ya Abu Baha’. There are some bastards behind this issue and we don’t believe them. How can you help us resolve it?” But this did not happen.
Muallim: During the previous stage, Farouk was in charge of everything.
Hariri: What is required of me? When an ambassador of such-and-such country comes to me and tells me that the Syrians are saying this and that, what should I do? Should I contact you? … It doesn’t require anything. Why wouldn’t Walid al-Muallim or Farouk or your deputies in Lebanon come to me and say: “Ya Abu Baha’, we don’t want you to be prime minister anymore.” I would have tendered my resignation in fifteen minutes. You saw what happened after the extension took place. Rustom said to me: “Things are not working out,” and I resigned. Did I start releasing statements and organizing demonstrations? I remained quiet for four months.
Muallim: How are we going to deal with the issue? I have no doubt that you are innocent [of the accusations].
Hariri: Our brothers need to know that I respect them and esteem them, but that I also respect myself. I’ve been faced with insults to my honor. Why? Let’s imagine that Rafiq al-Hariri did what he was accused of. Why did he change now after being with us for 25 years? They didn’t ask themselves this question. And the false talk that Marwan Hamadeh and Ghassan Salameh visited Rafiq al-Hariri in Sardinia and came up with UNSCR 1559… whoever says that is basically saying that we tried to kill Marwan Hamadeh. And this is one of your problems with Walid Jumblatt… Marwan Hamadeh did not come to Italy in 2004.
Muallim: He is a patriot. Is Walid Jumblatt not a patriot?
Hariri: Why did Walid Jumblatt get to this stage [i.e. opposing Syria]?
Muallim: He has his reasons.
Hariri: What are these reasons?
Muallim: There has been some bad behavior in the past, but things should not continue.
Hariri: But it is continuing. Syria cannot build its policies on the basis of intelligence reports. In the end, there are personal relationships between us, and there’s the general condition of the country to take into account…
Muallim: I know.
Hariri: In addition to that, nothing prevents others from causing problems for you – and with great ease – because there are major interests in play. You can’t imagine what’s happening right now. There are major financial interests, and the great nations have gotten involved and are coming between us. The question of the Syrian presence in Lebanon has been raised. What are you going to do? Are you going to continue to listen to so-and-so and so-and-so? This will not solve the problem.
The Ta’if Accord has two parts, one dealing with the relationship between Lebanon and Syria, and the other dealing with reforms… During my presence in the government and during the government of Salim al-Hoss, the President of the Republic was given prerogatives that he had not enjoyed since before the Ta’if Accords. And today we’re dealing with the issue of small districts [in the electoral law] and this will lead to the end of the Ta’if Accord and the return to the pre-1975 state. If small districts are used with the current electoral maps for Beirut, I would win more parliamentary seats than I could ever have dreamed of. I could run candidates in all the districts where I had a chance, and I reckon I would win. But even if Rafiq al-Hariri won, Lebanon would lose, and I don’t want that to happen.
[…] If the [proposed] law is passed in the Parliament, I will resign along with my deputies, and I’m giving you a formal notice of this.
Muallim: I’m not comfortable with the break between you and President al-Assad, and this situation will lead to mistakes. You are reacting in certain ways because you don’t understand why things are happening.
Hariri: I know what’s happening. I can’t live within a security regime that is dedicated to interfering with me and writing reports to Bashar al-Assad that he believes. And I don’t know the contents of these reports, so I can’t respond to them.
Muallim: I will pass this on to the President.
Hariri: May God judge me for these words on the Day of Resurrection: it is a disgrace to suggest that Rafik Hariri is part of the opposition. Recently I learned from the Spaniards that they were going to put Hizbullah on their terrorism list. Do you know who prevented them from doing so? The French did. Do you know who prevented the French? Me. Why? After all, I’m in a dispute with you and perhaps you will use Hizbullah against me; I have no desire for a “gift”. I’ve sacked the deputies in my bloc who are loyal to you. I want to return with my own deputies.
Three quarters of me are now in the opposition on account of the way that I’ve been treated, and everything I’m hearing says that Syria has written off Rafiq al-Hariri. Abu `Abdo comes to see me with a nice letter and the upshot is that the electoral law is in my pocket. How can that be, when the law works against me? What’s the relationship between the talk I’m hearing here and the other talk [from abroad] and the actions I’m seeing?