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Dossier: Gibran Tueni
by Gary C. Gambill
Gibran Tueni, the editor of Beirut's mass circulation An-Nahar daily newspaper, fired a shot heard around the world in March, in the form of an editorial calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Tueni's editorial, the first by a major journalist to explicitly make such a call since 1990, inspired the hearts and minds of journalists, students, lawyers, human rights activists and other sectors of country's beleaguered civil society. In the stroke of a pen, their days of remaining silent passed into the history books.
Tueni, 42, belongs to a family with a long tradition of journalism and public service. Al-Nahar was established by his grandfather in 1933. His father, Ghassan Tueni, ran the newspaper for decades, served in parliament, the cabinet, and represented Lebanon at the United Nations. Tueni was instilled with the principle of sectarian tolerance at an early age due to the intermarriage of his parents (his father was a Christian, his mother a Druze), which was virtually unheard of at that time. At age 18, he came to experience the horror of sectarian intolerance with the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1976--he was shot in the legs by Palestinian guerrillas later that year and kidnapped for 36 hours by Christian militiamen the following year.
Tueni was an outspoken participant in the multi-sectarian, populist movement backing Prime Minister Michel Aoun's 1989-1990 attempt to expel Syrian military forces from Lebanon. After the Syrians occupied Beirut and ousted Aoun in October 1990, Tueni spent three years in exile in France. After his return to Lebanon, Tueni joined his father at Al-Nahar, which managed to flourish despite the new Syrian-installed regime's efforts to silence the press. In December 1999, Tueni succeeded his father as managing editor of the paper.
On the eve of this year's Geneva summit between Bill Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad, Tueni published an "open letter" in Al-Nahar to Bashar Assad, the son and heir apparent of the ailing Syrian President. "Many Lebanese are not happy about the Syrian military presence in Lebanon and believe that Syrian behavior in Lebanon contradicts the principles of sovereignty and independence," wrote Tueni. "People are wondering about Lebanon's fate, the utility of the Syrian army's presence in Lebanon and if the price of peace in the region resides in Syria's seizure of Lebanon. People do not accept that Lebanese can be detained in Syrian prisons." Tueni called on Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon in advance of this summer's parliamentary elections in order to assure the Lebanese people that Damascus will not intervene in the polls. "The people are asking for a timetable for Syrian redeployment and are [still] waiting for answers. Those asking for this redeployment are neither traitors nor enemies but persecuted citizens who want answers that will dispel their justifiable fears."1
Tueni's editorial sparked public expressions of like-minded sentiments from other Lebanese journalists. A subsequent editorial by Samir Frangie in the French-language Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour, entitled "A Necessary Polemic," praised Tueni for "opening a debate on issues that are
preoccupying the Lebanese people : Would Lebanon pay the price of peace? Would Syria maintain
its military presence in Lebanon after the Israeli pullout? Would The upcoming August
parliamentary elections be a remake of those undertaken in 1992 and 1996?" Tueni, he said, "spoke out loud what people are afraid to say. His terms were moderate and aiming at a compromise with Syria."2 Beirut's Daily Star stopped short of endorsing Tueni's editorial, but said that Damascus should specify "a realistic set of conditions for the troops' departure."3
Lebanese government officials and other pro-Syrian politicians sharply condemned Tueni's criticism of Syria and accused him of Zionist sympathies. "This broken record is played with pro-Israeli motivations every time there are developments that may favor Lebanese and Syrian interests," said President Emile Lahoud in a statement last month, adding that he is confident of "Syria's support for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence." Druze MP Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) released a statement condemning those who "revive claims that Syria is a foe and an enemy" and said that "advocates of this claim, which proved to be destructive to Lebanon, have not learned from the past." Akkar MP Fawzi Hobeiche hailed the Assad regime as the "first in Syria to recognize Lebanon's independence" and insisted that "if Syria wanted to annex Lebanon it
would have done so during the war."4
"It is a pity that someone who calls for the minimum standards of sovereignty and independence for his country is accused of treason," said Tueni in response to the avalanche of criticism by pro-Syrian politicians. "My editorial was an address to Colonel Bashar Assad and a criticism of the Lebanese politicians who exploit Lebanese-Syrian ties to serve their interests. Those who responded negatively are those who felt targeted by the editorial and felt the need to defend themselves. They do not seem to have read my editorial."5 Bashar Assad did not publicly comment on Tueni's article. Within days of its publication, however, he summoned Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss to a meeting in Damascus and no doubt expressed his thoughts on the matter.
As a result of the April intifada by supporters of Aoun6 and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon in May, the willingness of Lebanese civil society to challenge Syrian authority has continued to grow. As perhaps the most eloquent advocate of his country's sovereignty and freedom still residing in Lebanon, Tueni will play instrumental role in Lebanese political developments in the coming years.
1 Open Letter to Bashar Assad, Al-Nahar (Beirut), 23 March 2000. Republished in The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, April 2000.
© 2000 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.
2 L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), 27 March 2000.
3 The Daily Star (Beirut), 29 March 2000.
4 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 27 March 2000.
5 The Daily Star (Beirut), 27 March 2000.
6 Lebanon's Intifada, The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, April 2000.
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