From the June 2000 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 47, No. 06)


Bold Words from Beirut

Joel Campagna, World Press Review contributing editor

With the July 7 date for Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon looming, a leading Lebanese newspaper has published an audacious call for Syria to consider doing the same with its 35,000 troops stationed in the country. On March 23, Gibran Tueni, publisher of Beirut’s independent Al-Nahar, addressed a front-page “open letter” to Bashar al-Assad, the son and de facto heir of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and holder of Syria’s Lebanon portfolio. The letter, published three days before President Bill Clinton’s meeting in Geneva with Assad, sent shockwaves through the Lebanese press, bringing to the fore the heated issue of Syria’s controversial military presence and role of power broker in Lebanon.

In his sharp critique, Tueni raised concern about Lebanese anger over Syrian domination of Lebanon’s political life and touched on explosive issues ranging from Lebanese political prisoners in Syria, and the need for Lebanon to be included immediately in negotiations with Israel. “You must realize that many Lebanese are uncomfortable with Syrian policies in Lebanon and with the presence of Syrian troops in the country,” he wrote. “This does not mean that these people are traitors or Israeli agents, as some might like to call them. It denotes their irritation, disgust, and rejection of the way Syria deals with Lebanon.” Tueni added, “many Lebanese consider Syria’s behavior in Lebanon to be completely at odds with the principles of sovereignty, dignity, and independence.” Tueni posed the question perplexing many Lebanese: whether “the price of peace in the region is definitive Syrian control over Lebanon.”

Tueni’s directness was remarkable given Syria’s repressive record in dealing with the Lebanese press. When Syrian troops entered the country in 1976, they  cracked down on the media. Since then, most Lebanese journalists have steered clear of stories that might antagonize Syrian authorities.

Even more chilling was the string of unsolved assassinations of outspoken journalists in the early 1980s. Perhaps the most notorious and frequently cited case is that of Salim al-Lawzi, who was tortured and killed by suspected Syrian agents in Beirut in March 1980. Lawzi, who had moved his newsmagazine, Al-Hawadeth, to London to escape Syrian censorship, had criticized Syrian military intervention in Lebanon.

Tueni’s open letter went to the heart of the ongoing debate over the future of Syria’s presence in Lebanon and sparked a sharp response from those who contend that such talk only plays into Israel’s hands. In a riposte to Tueni’s letter, Al-Fadhal Shalaq, editor of Beirut’s recently established daily Al-Mustaqbal, lashed out in an accusatory open letter on March 24: “At the very critical moment when Syrian President Assad is preparing to meet with U.S. President  Clinton, voices are raised in Lebanon criticizing Syria rather than Israel, and demanding that Syria—not Israel—withdraw its forces from the country on the pretext that their presence detracts from Lebanese sovereignty,” he wrote.

Shalaq and other analysts say that Syria’s presence in Lebanon is essential for stability in the country. “Anyone who believes that weakening Syria will somehow serve Lebanon’s interests is gravely mistaken,” observed Shalaq. “Lebanon’s strength is Syria’s, and so is its weakness.”         

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