Ghassan Tueni, revered Lebanese journalist, politician, intellectual and diplomat, passed away Friday morning. He was 86 years old.
It might at first appear difficult to grasp the impact of what Ghassan Tueni has done for Lebanon simply because many of his contemporaries are gone. But that does not diminish his value as one of the few, brave public figures who was always willing to speak his mind, whether or not he agreed with state policy or public opinion, an attitude that would have him jailed several times throughout his career. He was not only an influential writer and luminary; he was a model of the kind of politician Lebanon so desperately needs.
Ghassan Tueni wanted to live in a free and decent country. He was born in 1926, the same year Lebanon first adopted its constitution. For nearly his entire life, he worked tirelessly in pursuit of that vision, bound to the obligations of a generation that witnessed the birth of an independent nation. One of the privileged elite who never acted like he was a member of that club, he was foremost a Lebanese, not a man of a certain class, creed or confession.
In 1945, Tueni earned his BA in philosophy from the American University of Beirut. He completed a Master’s degree at Harvard University, and was pursuing his PhD, when he was forced to return to Lebanon in order to take over as editor-in-chief of An-Nahar newspaper following his father’s sudden death in 1948.
His career in politics spanned several decades. In 1951, at just 24 years old, he became a member of parliament. From then until 1977, he served in various positions, including house speaker, deputy prime minister and as the head of the Social Affairs, Industry and Information ministries.
Tueni served as Lebanon’s ambassador to the UN from 1977 to 1982. He is famously remembered for addressing the Security Council on March 17, 1978 with the emphatic, emotional plea: “Let my people live!” Shortly after, the UNSC adopted Resolution 425, which called on Israel to immediately withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
A great majority of the Lebanese people can tell you about the impact of Resolution 425. Few of them, especially from the younger generation, can tell you that Ghassan Tueni was the man behind it. But his barrier-breaking accomplishments were never built around the need or desire to boast. In his eyes, he was fulfilling the duty of public service to the country he loved.
Tueni suffered a series of tragic losses in his personal life, outliving every member of his immediate family. His only daughter, Nayla, died at the age of seven from cancer. His wife, Nadia, lost her battle with the disease in 1983. Makram, Tueni’s youngest son, died in a car crash in Paris in 1987. His last remaining son, late MP and journalist Gebran Tueni, was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005.
At his son Gebran’s funeral he told fellow mourners, "I call today not for revenge, hatred or blood. I call that we bury with Gebran all the hatred, all the controversies. I call on all the Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, to be united in the service of great Lebanon, in the service of its Arab cause."
The late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid recounted this rare demonstration of dignity and poise in a 2006 article for the Washington Post, noting how Ghassan’s “words reverberated across Lebanon. Here was a call distinct from the usual vows of revenge. Within days, Tueni had reemerged as someone who many Lebanese hoped could chart a path that was independent of communal politics.”
Soon after the funeral, Tueni was elected to the Greek-Orthodox seat for Achrafieh—a seat that used to be his son's.
For all the admiration the Lebanese people have directed toward Gebran Tueni, they should find perhaps even greater admiration for the man who nurtured and cultivated him into the great politician and editor he had become. Here was a true leader committed to the pursuit of social progress, human dignity and a united Lebanon. Ghassan Tueni understood that demanding love and respect are far more powerful than inciting hatred and anger.
He defied everything that encourages the people of this country to believe that we are different from one another. Tueni taught us to be kind, compassionate and dedicated to the pursuit of freedom and justice for all.
He taught us about the profound power of words. During a speech in 2007 to the International Union of Journalists, Tueni told the audience that “what hurt me the most during my time in prison is that time and time again we weren’t allowed to read.” “We weren’t allowed to read,” he repeated.
And so his wisdom and legacy lives on. Open up the pages of An-Nahar newspaper every day and read it. You’ll realize though he has passed away, Ghassan Tueni will remain alive and well in our national consciousness.