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Talking To: George Freiha

On September 14, 1982, an assassin’s bomb killed President-elect Bachir Gemayel as he was delivering a speech in the Kataeb Party headquarters in Sassine. The Kataeb leader and Lebanese Forces founder died instantly before he could take office. Dr. George Freiha served as Gemayel’s chief of staff, and an urgent request for a meeting from the then-US ambassador to Lebanon, Philip Habib, saved his life that day. Freiha, now retired, told NOW Lebanon about Gemayel’s legacy and which of his ideas Lebanon should reconsider today.

NOW Lebanon: When did you first meet Bachir, and what was your impression of him?

George Freiha: The first time I met Bachir was in October 1970 during the hospitalization of his uncle at the American University Hospital after a heart attack. His uncle, Maurice Gemayel, is the father of my wife. Bachir came to the hospital for 12 consecutive days, and we spent all night talking on the roof of the hospital. Through those meetings, I discovered the real personality of Bachir. He was a revolutionary with ideas and objectives. He interested me a lot, and at that time he was very young – 23 years old… I realized he could be a potential leader. And he went on to become the leader of his party – the Kataeb – and then leader of the Lebanese Forces.

His military successes made him popular, but he also accomplished a lot in other endeavors – namely social services, education, sports and politics. He had a vision.
This is what made him, at the age of 34, 35, president of the republic.

NOW: At the time of his election, Bachir commonly used the slogan “10,452 square kilometers” – a reference to a free and independent Lebanon without foreign forces on its soil. He also endorsed a kind of a federal structure for Lebanon. Is there a contradiction between the two in your opinion? Are these ideas relevant today?

Freiha: He preached for 10,452 square kilometers. Within this Lebanon of 10,452 square kilometers, he wanted to create a formula by which the Christian community would not be threatened all the time and going to war. He declared on the 8th of December 1981 that federalism would be the best solution. It is not partition. Each community would have its own administration with horizontal linkages [between them], saving the [unity of Lebanon]… Had he lived, I would say in six months, he would have changed the whole picture of Lebanon… It’s the best solution. Bachir believed in this. He was strong. He could have influenced [Lebanon’s future, but the leaders after him didn’t pick up the idea of federalism]… Eventually we have to come back to this idea… I am in my seventies. I have lived through six wars. Six wars. I don’t want my children to go along that same path.

NOW: Last Wednesday, we saw another political assassination in Baysour. When do you think these acts of violence will stop?

Freiha: It will not end as long as we are in the same political, geographic situation. Syria occupied Lebanon for 25 years. Before the occupation, it had an eye on Lebanon. Lebanon’s potential [for conflict] is higher than any other Arab country… Syria has ambitions to have it. Syria left Lebanon unwillingly, and God knows she plans to come back… I believe we will come to an end to all of this. We will come to an end, I’m sure. There is a sense of patriotism now.

NOW: You served as president of the American University of Beirut’s Off-Campus Program, which ran during the civil war. How did this program start, and what is its legacy?

Freiha: Bachir realized that the two most important universities were located in West Beirut – the American University of Beirut and Lebanese University. The only one that was in East Beirut was the French University. But the [English] universities were far away from the eastern side of the country – and the Christians. I was a professor at the American University of Beirut. During the war, when there was complete partition of Beirut, the professors and students from East Beirut were unable to cross to the other side. So Bachir asked me what about opening a branch of AUB on the east side. It reached one-third of the total AUB enrollment, with 109 professors, all the colleges and 16,000 students…This was the first time [English] education came to the east side of the country. It was Francophone. What was amazing was the people on this side were so eager to have this [English] education. Now you notice, after the closure of the Off-Campus Program, many universities opened, and almost 80% are Anglo-Saxon. But we were the first to introduce it to the east side of the country.

NOW: Do you think the Cedar Revolution of March 2005 did justice to the principals Bachir raised and fought for?

Freiha: Bachir was not a fanatic. We had in our team many moderate Muslims. Bachir would have loved to have a strong Sunni body that believed in Lebanon. An accord with [Lebanon’s Muslim community] is necessary. We cannot afford a war every ten years. We should create something that keeps us surviving without war.

NOW: What else from Bachir’s legacy does Lebanon need today?

Freiha: We need a leader. The Christians don’t have one leader. The Druze have one leader – a top leader. The Sunnis have one leader. The Shia have one leader. Christians have four or five leaders attacking each other.

  • A.Wazen

    When Bachir became president of the Lebanese republic he was barely 33 , he was assassinated before he completed 33 ,not 34 or 35 . I wish he could live to 35

    September 23, 2008

  • Jean Shaheen

    I wonder if Christian leaders today have people of Prof. Freiha's caliber around them for consultancy.Prof. Freiha used to teach my dad at AUB decades ago and he was a good teacher and consultant as my dad tells me!

    September 16, 2008