Lebanon’s Strong Advocate of Independence; Gebran Tueni Assassinated By Fatina Salaheddine
Lebanon endured the loss of another fearless visionary on Dec. 12, 2005 when Parliament member and veteran journalist Gibran Tueni was assassinated by a massive car bomb. The list of martyrs in Lebanon continues to grow while the Lebanese await the verdict of the murder that started it all, on Valentine’s Day February 14, 2005, with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Sheikh Rafik Al-Hariri.
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 (March 14), and was elected this year to the Lebanese Parliament.
I met Gebran Tueni in early Spring of 2003 in Doha Qatar. We had both been invited participants by the government of Qatar, to Doha’s Forum on Democracy & Free Trade. A brisk, tall man with a neat mustache, Tueni welcomed me to a seat beside him, during the crowded opening session of the Conference, where the Emir of Qatar was about to begin his speech. I can recall fondly how neither of us remembered anything from that opening session, due to the constant whispering and note passing that we did with each other. I was secretly so ecstatic in meeting Gebran Tueni that morning (and later confessed to him), because months before, I had admired him on a popular Lebanese Entertainment Show on LBC, called “Sa3 B urb El Habeeb” (translation of show; “An hour in the Presence of Someone Dear”). Later on that day, during the conference, Gebran Tueni introduced me to his Uncle Ali Hamaidi, a prominent Lebanese Media personality. He was coordinating a special show for Future Television, to feature some of the prominent attendees of the Doha Conference, in discussing Middle East issues. It was soon afterwards, that Gebran Tueni and I delved into a strong fascinating and journalistic friendship. Many meetings in many international cities later, our bond of companionship and trust grew. Then ubruptly, my treasured friendship was taken away from me, when he was horrifically assassinated on the early morning of Dec. 12, 2005.
In trying to maintain any form of sanity in dealing with the murder of my friend Gebran Tueni, I have fixated my grief on all the good memories I feel privileged to have shared with him. Even as I am typing this, it’s hard to choke back the burning tears. My memory is constantly jogging from our many phone conversations, to all the text messages and e-mails we exchanged – to my last memory of physically seeing him in Paris. It was during my invitation at the Four Seasons Hotel Paris, as guest of HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Tallal, (just three weeks before his assassination), that I last met with Gebran Tueni. I have to say, Gebran left a very deep and poignant mark on my mentality as a journalist, and as an American of Lebanese descent. He constantly kept me mentally stimulated on Lebanese, Middle East and U.S. affairs. It was always a trial, where I had to present my case to “Judge” Gebran, when I was discussing any story ideas for Al-Sahafa, or when pertinent Arab issues, were at the helm of American Foreign Policy. He had a knack of fierceness when he discussed politics. Any viewer could hear it in his voice during a television interview, or even sense it in his writings in An-Nahar Newspaper. But all who knew him personally, could see that this fierceness was fueled by the biggest heart of gold, in his love for justice for the Lebanese and for his dear country of Lebanon.
Tueni’s Life & Vision through An-Nahar Newspaper A rooster being the logo of his newspaper, An-Nahar, an Arabic name which means, "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, French and Arabic, he often 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."
The sole heir of a line of journalists and politicians who had, since the end of the Ottoman Empire, struggled to preserve the unique character of Lebanon in the region, Tueni had recently established himself as a fearless, intelligent and persistent champion of his country’s independence as a tiny but democratic state conscious of its roots in the Crusader kingdoms of the Levant in the 12th century, and an even older history in ancient Phoenicia.
He and his family also championed communal tolerance in a tragically fractious society. His father, Ghassan, a Greek Orthodox Christian, married a Druze, the late poet Nadia Hamadeh, when such unions were rare, and his grandfather, also Gebran, had founded the liberal newspaper An-Nahar in 1933 under the French mandate to inspire the emerging nation with the ideals of the European Enlightenment. Under their care, the paper has become what many observers regard as perhaps the only credible daily journal published on Arab soil. Tueni himself managed and edited it for the past decade, but he had previously been shaped by it as much as it had been shaped by his family.
Gebran Ghassan Tueni was born in 1957 when his father was both An-Nahar’s publisher and a member of parliament, at times in government and at other times in prison. But amid the risks and the excitement, young Gebran’s life as the elder son of the family was both comfortable and inspiring. He spent time in France and, from 1977 to 1980, obtained two degrees at the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Internationales. But previously, at the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, he had come close to dying. He was shot in the legs by Palestinian gunmen and, a year later, abducted for 36 hours by right-wing Christian militiamen. In 1987 the death of his sole surviving sibling, his younger brother Makram, in a car accident in France made him the only heir to the publishing house, as well as the only custodian of the family’s political future. In 1990, when Syrian forces occupied Beirut and ended Prime Minister Michel Aoun’s attempt to expel them from the country, Tueni fled to France and established a political weekly, An-Nahar Arab and International. He also took another degree, this time in management, from CEDEP-INSEAD in Fontainebleau. In 1993 he returned and joined An-Nahar as a journalist. This coexistence with the Syrian occupation continued until March 2000, in the dying weeks of the former President, Hafez al-Assad, when Tueni published an editorial calling on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon after 24 years, in the name of keeping its peace. The daring outburst brought him to international prominence, for at the time any such act of defiance usually ended in abduction, torture or even assassination. But Tueni had judged the mood of most of his countrymen well. The movement gathered pace steadily after Bashar Assad succeeded his father as president in Damascus and came under sustained pressure from the United States for the policy of helping the government of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to bypass UN sanctions.
In the wake of the assassination in February in Beirut of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Tueni played a central part in mobilizing the public’s demonstration of grief and anger, which was crucial subsequently in forcing Syria to withdraw its uniformed forces from the country. In May 2005, he was elected to parliament for the Greek Orthodox constituency in Beirut in alliance with Saad Hariri, the late Prime Minister’s son, and Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader. However, while the new coalition succeeded in forming a government, opposition to its central strategy of making Lebanon completely free of Syrian influence continued in the form of the incumbent President Emille Lahoud and the two Shia militias, Hezbollah and Amal. In August Tueni fled to France once more. His name had been found heading a list of more Lebanese figures to be eliminated, and in his evidence to the UN commission investigating the Hariri murder, he testified that the late Prime Minister had told him he had been directly threatened in Damascus by the new President Assad. Tueni also stated he received "accurate" information that his name was on an assassination hit-list and had spent much of his time abroad since then citing security fears. (Tueni’s uncle, anti-Syrian Druze Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, survived an assassination attempt in a car bomb in 2004).
Following the death of fellow an-Nahar journalist Samir Kassir on June 2, 2005, Tueni was one of the first people to arrive at the murder scene, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Syrian regime. "Bashar Assad should not be allowed to have a single intelligence operative lingering in Lebanon," said Tueni, who was elected as part of Saad Hariri's Future Movement (Tayyar Al Moustakbel) in Beirut. "The Syrian regime is responsible from head to toe for this horrific terrorist crime. Lebanon's opposition should promptly close ranks anew to have every Syrian intelligence cell left behind in Lebanon ruthlessly smashed," Tueni said.
Gebran Tueni’s daughter, Nayla Tueni is proof that Gibran is still alive and well. In her speech, the morning of the funeral church service of her father she said: "I, Nayla, daughter of my father Gibran, daughter of my grandfather Ghassan, daughter of my grandfather's father Gibran, I, the daughter of Tueni, am the daughter of freedom. I am the daughter of a martyr, and a martyr never dies..."
"In the names of all those martyrs I solemnly swear our freedom will never die...My father is not dead! He will live through me. I will be the eye of the rooster [An Nahar symbol] which will follow the murderer until the last grave, until we know the truth...An-Nahar will never die, Lebanon will never die...My father always wanted to die for his country and he did. I call upon you all never to forget the oath that he taught you on March 14."
I swear to God As a Muslim and a Christian To defend my dear country ‘till the death And to stay united with my brethren (to stay muwahadeen) Until my last days on earth Defending my great Lebanon (Al A3zeem) - Gebran Tueni (March 14, 2005 – during Lebanon’s biggest Independence March in Downtown Beirut. Marking one month exactly to the day of former Lebanese Prime Minister; Sheikh Rafik Al Hariri’s assassination)
The Assassination A car bomb killed Lebanese newspaper magnate and anti-Syrian lawmaker Gebran Tueni in Beirut on Monday, a day after he returned from Paris, where he had based himself in recent months in fear of assassination. Several Lebanese politicians immediately blamed Syria, which has denied any role and said the killing was timed to smear it. Police said Tueni, publisher of An-Nahar daily, was among three people killed in the explosion that destroyed his armored sports utility vehicle as it was driving in the Mekalis area of mainly Christian east Beirut. Some 32 people were wounded. The bodies of Tueni, 48, his driver and a bodyguard were found in his car, charred beyond recognition. Assault rifles and military bags laid beside them inside the wrecked vehicle. A previously unknown group calling itself "Strugglers for the Unity and Freedom of the Levant" claimed responsibility for the killing in a statement faxed to Reuters, saying the same fate awaited other opponents of "Arabism" in Lebanon. There was no way to verify the authenticity of the claim, whose wording appeared designed to cast suspicion on Damascus. Security sources said a parked car packed with up to 100 kg (220 pounds) of dynamite was detonated by remote control as Tueni's car passed by. Tueni's car was hurled from the road and landed in a different street, dozens of meters away. "I heard a deafening explosion and when I looked up I saw a car flying in the air," one passerby said. The blast set several cars ablaze and damaged nearby shops and buildings. Police and soldiers cordoned off the area as rescue workers ferried casualties to hospitals. Tueni, a fierce critic of Syria's policies in Lebanon who was elected to parliament this year, said in August he believed he was on a hit-list for assassination. He had spent much of his time since then in Paris, but returned to Beirut late Sunday evening –to be blown to pieces, the following morning. His uncle, Telecoms Minister Marwan Hamadeh, survived his own car bomb assassination attempt last year. Tueni was killed just hours before the U.N. Security Council was due to receive a report by chief U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis, who has been trying to identify those behind the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. An interim report by Mehlis in October said the evidence pointed toward the involvement of Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies in Hariri's killing. Syria denies this. The U.S. embassy in Beirut condemned the killing, saying in a statement that "with this heinous act, the forces of oppression and tyranny have taken from the Lebanese people one of their greatest champions for liberty and freedom...." Greek Orthodox churches in Beirut rang their bells in a mark of grief and supporters gathered outside An-Nahar offices, near the site of mass protests that followed Hariri's murder. The death of Hariri transformed Lebanon's political landscape, sparking a global outcry and Lebanese protests that forced Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon after 29 years.
The Funeral Tens of thousands of Lebanese bid farewell on Dec. 14, to anti-Syrian publisher and lawmaker Gebran Tueni, turning his funeral into an outpouring of anger against Damascus, which they blame for his murder. Tueni's assassination, the third political murder since former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was killed in February of 2005, has caused serious political rifts in Lebanon, bringing the government to the verge of collapse. Over 50,000 people, many waving Lebanese flags, answered a call by anti-Syrian politicians for a large turnout at Tueni's funeral. A group carried his flag-draped coffin on their shoulders through the streets of central Beirut to the Greek Orthodox church where an emotionally charged service was held. "I call on this occasion not for revenge or hatred but for us to bury with Gebran all our hatreds and to call on all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, to unite in the service of great Lebanon and its Arab cause," said Tueni's father, Ghassan, a distinguished journalist and diplomat. In scenes reminiscent of the mass protests that swept Beirut after Hariri's murder and forced Damascus to end a 29-year military presence in Lebanon, the crowds denounced Syria and demanded its ally, President Emile Lahoud, step down. "We want your head, Bashar," the crowds chanted in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We are here to revolt against the oppression and barbarity that is taking away our best men," mourners chanted. Church bells rang as the crowds carried the coffin, covered with flowers, to the family cemetery in east Beirut. In Martyrs' Square, the crowds also repeated the vow Tueni led them in making on the same spot at a March 14 rally: "We swear by God Almighty, Muslims and Christians, to remain united and defend great Lebanon forever and ever." A Lebanese flag was draped over Tueni's seat in parliament, which held a session in his honor, later that day after the funeral. A large banner hung from the headquarters of an-Nahar in downtown Beirut bearing a picture of Tueni.
May God Bless his soul. (Allah Yirhamou)