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Gebran Tueni, R.I.P.

Claudia Rosett
14th December 2005 - Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

At a rally of the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon this past March, among the chants of "Death to America" and the banners lauding Syria, some of the demonstrators brandished posters that threatened, in Arabic: "We are going to sweep Gebran Tueni from Lebanon."

That is what someone has now done, with the car-bombing Monday on the outskirts of Beirut that murdered the 48-year-old Tueni, who was Lebanon's leading newspaperman in the struggle for a free and democratic society. Tueni's assassination comes not only as a loss to the Lebanese, but a hideous affront to the free world. Coming within hours of the latest United Nations report from Detlev Mehlis's investigation into the February bomb assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Tueni's death also underscores big questions about whether it is enough to wait upon the further findings of U.N. process--however admirably diligent that has been in digging into the affairs of the prime suspect, which is the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. In the matter of Lebanon's afflictions, Tueni himself spent years telling us what the problem was, and the direction he pointed was not only Syria, but Iran.

You had to meet Gebran Tueni. He was a cross between the hard-hitting journalists of legend and the courageous democratic politicians who do in fact stand up in today's Middle East only to end up jailed, exiled or killed for their beliefs. He played one of the leading roles in the democratic Cedar Revolution that swept Lebanon this spring, and was elected this year to the Lebanese Parliament.

I met Tueni twice. The first time was in 2002, when Syria's generation-long chokehold still imposed on many Lebanese a terrified silence. I had gone to Lebanon trying to judge the strength of the democratic movement beneath the Syrian gloom. Tueni had been speaking up for years, and I paid him a call at his newspaper. It was then headquartered in the bustling Hamra section of Beirut, not far from the seaside compound that housed Syria's secret police.

A brisk, trim man with a neat mustache, Tueni welcomed me to an office filled with figurines of roosters, small and large, dignified and whimsical. He collected them, he said--a rooster being the logo of his newspaper, An-Nahar, an Arabic name which he translated for me as "The Morning." Founded by Tueni's grandfather in the 1930s, and passed from father to son for three generations, An-Nahar was for Gebran Tueni not only a family business, but a vital trust. Seated behind his grandfather's desk, speaking in fluent English, he explained that his aim was to cover the full spectrum of Lebanese news and debate, to give voice to "Muslims, Christians, leftists, rightists." As a Lebanese patriot, he refused to be cowed by Syrian censorship. In 2000 he had broken his country's long silence by publishing an explicit call for Syria to get its troops out of Lebanon. He had no patience with the press self-censorship that tends to become the rule under jackboot regimes. "If you accept to enter the game of blackmailing, it's your fault," he said. "We try to have an independent paper."

Asked about the dangers of such a stance, he catalogued quickly that he had been shot twice, in 1976 and 1989; kidnapped briefly, in 1976; and exiled in 1990 for three years.

Tueni's defiance of despotic rule extended not only to Syrian occupation but to the presence of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. He described Hezbollah as "an imported product from Iran. It has nothing to do with Lebanese identity." He went on to explain that Hezbollah is "a direct threat, acting in Lebanon like a state within a state," with "weapons everywhere." Hezbollah, he said, has its enticing side, building hospitals and schools, and providing free education to children of poor families--"but what are they teaching?" Hezbollah's strategy, he said, "Is to transform us into an Islamic republic." Tueni described Iran as providing Hezbollah's weapons and the funding, and Syria as providing "the cover."

Tueni saw democracy as the only acceptable future for Lebanon. He had no illusions that it would be easy going: "Just to talk about democracy, it's not a cocktail party," he said, "You have to work at it."

When I returned to Lebanon in March of this year, on a reporting assignment for the New York Sun, Tueni was working around the clock. He had moved his newspaper to new headquarters in the center of Beirut. The offices now looked out appropriately enough onto Martyr's Square, which had become the gathering place for the Lebanese democratic protests catalyzed by Hariri's assassination the previous month. An-Nahar was chronicling not only the Lebanese democratic movement, but signs of political dissent within Syria itself--amplifying the message throughout the Arabic-speaking world by way of the An-Nahar Web site (where today, in terms anyone can read, the rooster logo weeps (see http://www.annaharonline.com/).

In March Tueni was meeting with other organizers of the Lebanese opposition, trying to translate the momentum in the streets into major steps toward real independence and democratic change. I asked him who was the leader of these democrats, and he replied that part of the strength of the movement was that there was no single leader; instead, many leaders of various groups and communities had come together. He stressed that this was just as well, given Syria's propensity for murdering Lebanese patriots, "A one-man show would make a beautiful target."

The common goal, he said, was to "restore democracy so we can have elections, and then we can compete with each other." On the broader front, concerning the wisdom of charting a similar course for Iraq, he had no doubts: "George Bush is doing the right job in the Middle East for us, believe me." Tueni's only reservation was his belief that Lebanon, endowed with a rich pre-Syrian legacy of democratic institutions, deserved a chance to lead the way: "We really think if the big issue is about the Middle East, about changing the world, Lebanon is the answer."

An-Nahar's new building had armed guards and bulletproof security shields and doors. But sitting in his corner office with its big picture windows, not far from the spot where Hariri was murdered, Tueni seemed both brave and terribly vulnerable. I asked him if his own life was in danger. He said he expected a wave of Syrian-backed "assassinations, booby-trapped cars," but did not think that could stop Lebanon's democratic movement. "They can kill one, two, three of us" he said, but then they are "finished."

He paused and smiled, "Better," he said, if they stop at "one."

They didn't. Gebran Tueni has now become the latest casualty in a series of terrorist bombings that are an assault not only on Lebanese democracy, but on all those in the Middle East--or anywhere else, for that matter--who believe government should be a matter of civil compact, not of rule by blood and fear. The urgent question by now is not only who precisely gave the order or laid the bomb, but who will act to put an end to this terror, and how.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



 

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