The oblong plain of Martyr's Square, lined by excavations, looks out over the Mediterranean. Until 1975 it boasted movie theatres, hotels and palm trees. Since the civil war, in which it became a lethal no man's land between the christian east and the islamic west of Beirut, it lies waiting for a new destination. On March 14, shortly after the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri, two million Lebanese stood here shouting for independence from Syria, the one-party state that governed Lebanon for thirty years, under the cloak of pan-Arab unity. Gebran Tueni stood on the stage, a well groomed man in his forties with unmistakeable charisma. 'Take the oath with me!', he shouted to the masses at his feet. 'We, christians and muslims, pledge by God almighty that we will stay united until the end of times, to protect our beloved Lebanon.' The crowd chanted the oath word for word after him. Right behind him, the sparkling new An-Nahar building rose into the air, home of the newspaper of which he had been publisher, chairman of the board and columnist since 2000. Now his portrait, larger than life, hangs above the entrance: dressed in a handsome suit, a scarf in the Lebanese red and white loosely around his neck, under his thin moustache the steely smile of a leader in times of crisis, the right hand beckoning in the air. Was he one of the new democratically thinking leaders the Arab world needs? Did he have the blueprint of a sovereign state with space for all the different denominations in his head? Did he know how to leave a century of power dynasties, nepotism and sectarian politics behind? Or was he an example of the new phenomenon that Turkish author Orhan Pamuk observed recently: the new non-Western elite, who 'justify the rapid rise in their fortunes by assuming the idiom and the attitudes of the West', while responding to criticism by their countrymen of ignoring tradition 'by brandishing a virulent and intolerant nationalism'?
Early Monday morning, December 12th, Gebran Tueni drove from his home in Mkalless, on the hillside north-east of downtown, to his office. In a curve of the road sixty kilograms of explosives detonated when he passed. His armoured limousine was blown right through the guard-rails. Georges Nassif, editor of An-Nahar's religion supplement ('christians and muslims, everyone is represented'), was about to leave for work when the telephone rang. 'I burst into tears,' the likeable chain-smoker recalls. 'At the newspaper there was an atmosphere of bewilderment. The fifth deadly attempt since the killing of prime minister Hariri in February. And all the victims were greek-orthodox: the bridge-builders of the new Lebanon, christian and Arab at the same time, open to the East and to the West.' The next morning, Ghassan Tueni arrived at the newspaper. The eighty year old eminence of Lebanese journalism and diplomacy - former ambassador at the United Nations, long-time editor of An-Nahar - had returned from Paris a day after his son, where he had received the Legion d'Honneur from Dominique de Villepin. After having lost his wife and two sons he now grieved the death of his last child. Breakable, lightly stooping, he addressed the gathered staff. 'Gebran is not dead. An-Nahar will continue. That will be tomorrow's headline.' That was all he said. Then he went home to rest. An-Nahar is one of the two main newspapers of Lebanon, and a model for Arab media in the 21st century. Founded in 1933, at the time of French rule, by grandfather Gebran who literally went from paperboy to millionnaire, the newspaper made the Tueni's into one of Lebanon's prominent dynasties. Outside of the country itself the paper is distributed in the Gulf states and Paris. Most important articles are available on the bi-lingual website. The building, which opened eightteen months ago, is a wonder of space and light. The round editorial offices are full of flat-screen monitors. The cartoonist produces his daily drawings inside a glass pillar in the middle of the workfloor. In the fully equipped training centre young journalists from all over the region follow courses in all aspects of making a newspaper. On his frequent trips Gebran Tueni kept an eye on the work through webcams. Even now he's omnipresent, on posters, buttons and screensavers. Georges Nasif, of the religion supplement, grins when we catch him with a pen in hand. 'We of the older guard received an ultimatum from Gebran. A year from now, writing on paper had to be left behind. He was a man of the future. Rooted in the newspaper's history, but determined to lead An-Nahar into the age of new technology. Since he took over from his father in 2000, he was constantly pushing for innovation. The design of the building, open and inclusive, was his in all its details. Beirut is a meeting-place between cultures, he said, the Martyr's Square is its new heart and so An-Nahar should also express this openness. Until the end of the civil war this paper was regarded as christian, right of center. Gebran brought a new generation of journalists inside. Muslim columnists were hard to find immediately, so he began with leftist christians like me, Elias Khoury and Samir Kassir, who was killed in June. Former marxists, all of us, who wanted a newspaper for the new Lebanon, which counts 65% of muslims. Starting with the large demonstrations in March the paper became the voice of the new movement for Lebanese sovereignty. We spent as much time in the square as behind our desks. An-Nahar is more than a newspaper. It is a movement, and we are its warriors. For us this is not a job, but our whole life.' A few glass doors away the editor of the literary supplement resides, Elias Khoury, the great novelist of the war and the Palestinian exodus. On his desk too there are suspiciously high piles of paper. But Khoury, with his grand reputation, magisterial pen and the investigative distance of his eyes behind glasses, he does not seem like a man to whom one puts an ultimatum. He shared Gebran Tueni's pursuit of a sovereign country. But where Tueni's tirades on every Thursday's front page aimed at the Baath-regime in Syria, Khoury thinks larger: to him, an independent Lebanon is a contribution to a new, democratic Arab world. 'We can be the model for the Palestinians to end the occupation and for true democracy in Iraq. The fate of the whole region is in suspension, and Lebanon plays a key role. That started with the demonstrations of March 14: the Americans called it the Cedar Revolution, I prefer to speak of our own intifadah. For the first time in 75 years we knew consensus in Lebanon. Gebran Tueni then joined the national coalition, leading to his place in parliament as the representative of Beirut. That coalition is necessary, whatever differences we might have had on social and economic topics.' After the assassination he quoted in his supplement Pablo Neruda's poem of the Spanish civil war, about the blood that flowed through the streets. 'With the killings, the Syrian regime is trying to creat a political crisis in Lebanon, so they might resume control over the country. Their influence on the army and the secret service is still strong. It is no coincidence that they are attacking writers and journalists: we defend democracy. And it isn't over yet. We are all targets, but it would be unwise to start writing more carefully now. We cannot afford to lose this battle. That would mean the end of the nation. When under fire you have to shoot back, so I learned during the war.'
(video) As far as Arab journalists go, Gebran Tueni was uncharacteristically direct. No shadowy sentences, no space for ambiguous interpretations. According to his last columns Syrian president Bashar Assad was a war criminal, who kept Lebanon in a stranglehold through his two 'Trojan horses': the maronite president Lahoud, whose second term he pressed through during the last unfree elections, and Hezbollah, the shiite party that hasn't put down its arms since the withdrawal of Israeli troops from South-Lebanon. 'Does Hezbollah want to be part of the offensive that is trying to destabilize Lebanon?', Tueni asked. 'Is it acceptable in a democratic system, based on dialogue and consensus, that the parliamentary majority is being held hostage by an armed minority?' When I ask Elias Khoury if Tueni, in the fire of his campaign for national unity, wasn't on the verge of excluding whole parts of the population, the writer perseveres in subtle diplomacy. 'You can exclude a political party, but not the whole shia community. The coalition will keep the door open for Hezbollah, even now their ministers have refused for months to fulfill their role in cabinet. After all, they have been vital in the resistance against Israeli occupation. If Hezbollah decides to follow the Syrian line, or the Iranian discourse with its racist denial of the holocaust, well, then they will have to take their responsibility. I count on the wisdom of people, even if history often proves their ignorance...'