Foe of Syria's presence speaks boldly in Lebanon; Journalist continues family tradition of politics and press


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- A lot of people here may agree with what Gebran Tueni says, but few match his brazenness or dramatic timing.

Two days before last month's Geneva meeting between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez el Assad, Tueni wrote a front-page editorial in his large-circulation newspaper An Nahar calling for Syria to end its 10-year domination of Lebanon and start to withdraw its 35,000 troops.

"You must realize that many Lebanese are uncomfortable with Syrian policies in Lebanon and with the presence of Syrian troops in the country," Tueni wrote in an open letter addressed to Assad's son Bashar, who is said to oversee Lebanese affairs from Damascus. This discomfort, Tueni went on, "denotes their irritation, disgust and rejection of the way Syria deals with Lebanon."

His argument drew only silence from Syria and a quick negative reaction from newspapers and politicians with close ties to the Assad regime. President Emile Lahoud suggested that Tueni was serving Israeli interests.

But it pushed up the threshold of debate in Lebanon, where fear of Damascus usually leads people to practice self-censorship in what they say or write about Syria.

Lebanese journalists "write between the lines so that people can read between the lines," Tueni says. "Our role in the Lebanese press was always to raise the red line. So now if people want to talk about the Syrian presence, they can use this article."

Elsewhere, fainter and more nuanced protests of Syria's role have appeared in the uncertain prelude to Israel's planned withdrawal from its occupation zone in the south.

There are "strong undercurrents in the society questioning Syria's role in Lebanon after an Israeli withdrawal," says Beirut political analyst Michael Young. "The Syrians know that once the Israelis pull out, their justification for remaining in Lebanon will no longer be as credible as before. The Pax Syriana in Lebanon will increasingly lack legitimacy."

Added to this is a fear that Syria, unsuccessful in regaining its own territory from Israel, will allow violent resistance in Lebanon to continue, providing an excuse for devastating Israeli retaliation against the Lebanese.

The open letter marked a splashy debut for Tueni, 42, a mustachioed, ruggedly handsome sportsman who in late December succeeded his father, Ghassan Tueni, at the helm of a newspaper launched as a four-page broadsheet by his grandfather in 1933.

But it fit a family tradition of mixing journalism and politics. His father served in parliament and as a Cabinet minister while running the newspaper and also represented Lebanon at the United Nations.

Gebran Tueni got a violent taste of Lebanon's murky political strife at a young age, when the country was gripped by civil war. Shot in the knees by Palestinians in 1976, he was kidnapped the next year by a faction of Christian Phalangists and held for 36 hours while a prisoner exchange was worked out.

Tueni is no stranger to the Syrians, having been a leader of the right-wing, Christian-led Lebanese Front political movement that resisted a Syrian takeover of the country in 1990. Afterward, he spent three years in exile in France, studying management.

He is considering running for parliament himself, but suspects Syria will try to control the outcome of this year's elections and doubts it would let a newsman win. Some in Lebanon see his open letter as partly a way of venting political frustration. He notes in it that the Lebanese people are "holding out great hopes" for the elections, and will be watching closely to see how much Syria interferes.

But Tueni insists he is foremost a journalist and sees promoting a free press as a way of reviving what has made Lebanon unique in the Arab world.

With its 6,000-year history dating to the Phoenicians, a sectarian mix of Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Druse, Lebanon has a tradition of pluralism and a powerful appetite for information, he says. Tueni, whose father is Greek Orthodox and whose mother is Druse, sees himself as personifying this tradition.

No other Arab country has such a vibrant private sector, widespread Internet use or as many former heads of state who aren't dead or jailed, he says.

"You are in a country where the readers are intelligent. You are in a country where the people are completely politicized, where the people know exactly what's happening," he says, sitting bolt upright behind his desk at An Nahar, wearing a plaid blue-and-white sportshirt and jeans.

The paper, he says in rapid-fire, accented English, stands up for the Arab world against the West, and for Lebanon against the Arabs. Next to him are two computer screens and a television tuned to CNN. His paneled office above Hamra Street, Beirut's fading former commercial center, is decorated with a variety of figurines of roosters, the paper's symbol. An Nahar is Arabic for "morning."

Tueni recounts recent history through a nationalist prism that absolves Lebanon's own feuding factions of much of the blame for a decade and a half of bloodshed.

It was less a "civil war" than a war by outsiders against Lebanon, he says: Palestinians who wanted to create a state here, Syrians who wanted to absorb the country, Iranians who wanted a Shiite platform in the Arab world and Israelis who wanted Lebanon to become the new home for uprooted Palestinians.

Now, he says, Lebanon is finally breaking free and he doesn't want these same outside forces to spoil it. He chose the timing for his open letter to make sure the country wasn't traded away in Geneva. "We should be around the table and not on the table," he says. "We've always been afraid that Lebanon would be the prize given to Syria or to Israel or to both of them."

He doesn't equate the two neighboring countries. Israel, he says, "is our enemy, and they are occupying our land." He brushes aside the glaring void in Lebanon's free communication-denial of telephone access to the Jewish state: "We're at war with Israel." His father joined in drafting U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 in 1978, calling for Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

With Syria, the younger Tueni wrote, Lebanon should be a partner and not a mere stooge, "in order that we may face Israel together."

He hasn't felt any threat to his or his family's security as a result of the open letter. He eschews bodyguards and drives his own car. It's easier for a stranger to walk into his office than to enter an American newspaper building.

Because of Lebanon's slow economic recovery from the war and competition from television, it's a struggle to keep An Nahar in the control of his family, he says. Though sometimes dubbed a "mass circulation" paper, it boasts a circulation of only 48,000.

But far from drawing negative financial pressure, he says the open letter has brought in more readers and advertising, along with thousands of supportive e-mails. "I don't think I'm alone -- do you think I'm alone?"

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